[Viewpoint] Texts before texting, pleaseThe Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century brought about a reading revolution after printing technology unleashed a flood of reading material. But that seemingly positive phenomenon worried the bourgeois class about the danger of literacy among the working and poor class.
Liberal philosopher John Locke, who believed that “No man’s knowledge here can go beyond his experience,” also opposed teaching letters to the poor because learning would open their eyes to the harsh reality of the limits of their social status. The elite believed the poor were happier knowing less and that ignorance was a gift from God to blind and anesthetize them from their hard lives.
Excessive reading, in the 18th century, was feared to be as harmful as the exposure to television that parents worry about today. The critics argued that too much reading could corrupt the mind as well as the body. A medical archive from the 18th century cited a list of illnesses that resulted from heavy reading, such as fever, headaches, failing sight, vomiting, arthritis, anemia, poor digestion, constipation and depression.
But despite such health warnings, the reading population grew. By 1800, Europeans were reading as many books as they could get their hands on. The increased consumption of letters, along with a boom in the publishing industry, created a renaissance of reading in Europe.
In his book “The Birth of the Reading Public,” Shigetoshi Nagamine traces Japan’s reading culture to the Meiji Restoration. The modernization period allowed the printing of books for sale or rental that allowed even the lowest-class men pulling rickshaws access to reading materials. The building of railways also helped to encourage a new habit, reading in silence, on trains. The common sight of a homeless person holding up a book in today’s Japanese subways or outside train stations can be dated as far back as the 19th century.
South Koreans accomplished in a half-century what Western societies did over several centuries. They raced without catching their breath to accomplish such rapid progress. They realized a rags-to-riches miracle with some of their industrial technologies now ranked at the top of the world.
But sadly, the pleasure of reading had no place in the serious business of promoting growth. Our history has none of Europe’s enlightenment-led reading across the 18th and 19th centuries or Japan’s incubating period for reading in the 19th century. We rank among the lowest among the Organization of Economic and Development member countries in reading habits.
The unfortunate history of our language use - the primary use of Chinese characters until the 19th century and the forced use of Japanese during the colonial rule of the early 20th century - played a part. We were only given the full liberty of our own alphabet after liberation in 1945.
At the time, illiterates accounted for 77 percent of the population above 13 years of age. Many men learned to read Hangul and write to their parents after joining the army during the 1950s. Reading in our own language, therefore, has been fully accessible only for the last five decades.
Some may ask, “Why read books when there is so much to read on the Internet?” Sven Birkerts, in his collection of essays “The Gutenberg Elegies” criticizes electronic technology for destroying the soul and essence of literary activity with its shallowness. “The stable hierarchies of the printed page,” he wrote, “are being superseded by the rush of impulses through freshly minted circuits.”
The physical word reaches a dead-end on the page, and any sense of later resonance must be established in the reader. The same words on a computer screen actually disintegrate before your eyes. Fast-changing and impatient cyberspace leaves no room for deep introspection or the true emotions of a reading experience. Some say electronic books can make reading more accessible to the public, especially among the young. An electronic book can hold thousands of written texts on a totally mobile platform, and they are easily accessible, providing a new product for online bookshops to sell.
But we forget the essence of the problem. A lack of interest in reading cannot suddenly metamorphose into devotion because the texts are carried on mobile devices instead of on printed pages.
In parallel to the relatively short history of Hangul’s widespread use, the quality and quantity of Hangul-based content is poor compared with its counterparts in English, Japanese or other languages.
The road ahead lies in a book. There are many who lived before us who would advise they have found their ways from books. If we go on without a reading renaissance period in our history, our future may be swamped with lost souls.
Our people have failed to move to a higher intellectual plain after achieving per capita income of $10,000 in 1995. Maybe we should look for answers in books for a change.
*The writer is a professor of history education at Woosuk University.
By Park Sang-ik