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How To Profit From Reading

My uncle, Malu had been reading the Psalms (Dawit) in Ge’ez for the last forty years, with tears in his eyes, but if you asked him the meaning of what he had just been reading, he would simply gawk at you and blink his eyes. He read because he had to. He did not read with understanding, no, not at all. He read just for the sake of reading, or maybe he thought that by reading the Scriptures day and night, he might assure himself of a soft landing in heaven.

It would have been more profitable for my uncle had he read the Psalms not with the intention to acquire sainthood (which is less certain) but to learn the complex Ge’ez grammar. That’s exactly what I did before I sat for the ESLC matriculation Ge’ez exam in the 1980s. And I succeeded. I got A. I profited from my reading.

If you are reading without a purpose and you don’t understand what the book wants to tell you, then you are not reading, you are simply scanning the pages without mental processing. You can compare yourself to a Ge’ez software in a computer trying to read passages in English. 

Reading should trigger the mind causing one to relate things and formulate ideas. It should light the ‘candles’ that remain unlit in one’s brain. It should by all means be able to effect some change in one’s thinking and attitude to the way one looks at things.

Unbeknown to us, as we lead our daily lives, we are all the time reading: reading signs, symbols, icons; reading people’s faces, reading body language, reading between the lines, reading people’s emotions and reading the skies and the times we live in.

Before the invention of the alphabets and books, people read the language of birds, the imprints of wild animals left on the ground, the various smells emitted by plants, the threatening grimaces of the enemy, the threatening looks of clouds, the signs in the sky, an impending earthquake, the behavior of insects and fish, etc.

Ancient Egyptians read pictures that symbolized sounds or maybe ideas. The Incas or Aztecs read more or less similar symbols. And astrologers have always been reading the shape of constellations and the movement of stars.

The American Red Indian read the smoke puffs that rose from the mountain yonder and knew that negotiation did not pay and that he had to be ready for war against the paleface. Geronimo here I come!

Madam Olga, the fortune teller, read your palms and told you that you would be laughing all the way to the bank. The South African Bushmen read broken twigs and dried animal droppings to stalk their preys.

Reading is as much a habit as a cultivated skill which requires interest and insight. There are people who trot around the world and if you ask them to tell you something about the places they had visited or the people they had encountered, they remain dumb and unable to relate things. It is certain that they could have seen the Tour Eiffel or the Statue of Liberty or even the Moulin Rouge. But it is their outer eyes and not their inner eyes they had used to see these historical monuments. Alas, they are unable to relate it to anything not because they are illiterate or because they have not read anything in life to make connections of events they have experienced in the past, but they are not gifted with the capacity to see things in an intelligent way, or maybe they are not inclined to do so.

They cannot, for example, say that the Tour Eiffel reminds them of the radio transmission towers at Betgiorgis, or that the Statue of Liberty looks like a towering replica of the one they saw in down town Paris, or even that one day some Italian businessman had tried to copy Moulin Rouge in Asmara to lure the American GIs. For all intents and purposes, such people are simply dumb.

However, reading should not be confined to books alone. It should include the reading and interpretation of anything that surrounds us.

Have you ever gone through a telephone directory lately? What about classified ads? Have you ever tried to read between the lines in government press releases? Can you learn anything from a restaurant menu? Comic strips anyone? Never! says the serious-looking company manager. Why not? If you don’t see the lighter side of things, you will be condemned to see the dark side of things for the rest of your life.

If there is some habit that people should cultivate, it should be the habit of reading indiscriminately. Don’t be lead by other people’s opinion which book or magazine to read. Simply choose what interests you and begin to read. It may be the type of literature people call ‘garbage’, but read it just the same if you happen to like it.

Some people say that we should be very careful in what we read, but I have seen people who read ‘garbage’ in English with ease and relaxation because they liked them and who finally showed significant change in their mastery of that language. By rubbish is meant cheap paperback fictions, the ones people buy at train stations to be thrown out the window half-way or when finished. Strangely enough, I found out that those who read ‘garbage’ with ease and relaxation expressed themselves in English more fluently than those who read ‘serious’ books with much strain and effort. 

Still some wits have left us pithy aphorisms and maxims that might discourage those who want to go on reading books of their own choice. They say that certain books emit light more if we burn them than if we read them. Again they say: Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested. And again someone had this to say: Thank you for sending me a copy of your book. I’ll waste no time reading it. A bit cruel, isn’t it?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), British poet, has said that readers are divided into four classes: Sponges, who absorb all they read and return it nearly in the same state, only a little dirtied. Sand-glasses, who retain nothing, and are content to get through a book for the sake of getting through the time. Strain-bags, who retain merely the dregs of what they read, and return it nearly in the same state, only a little dirtied. Mogul diamonds, equally rare and valuable, who profit by what they read, and reflecting, refracting, and enlarging upon it enable others to profit by it also.

I think it is better to read ‘garbage’ than never to read at all, for your mere reading of ‘garbage’ might induce some kind of habit in you and as you get bitten by the bug of reading, it will become a lifetime habit which is certain to bring untold joy to your otherwise humdrum life.

You may start with pornography or sick jokes or even commix, and once the reading habit established you might by some sort of miracle pass to the reading of heavy material such as contemporary literature and weighty dissertations. 

I myself have developed the habit of reading not because my father brought me copies of Robinson Crusoe or David Copperfield, but the American base in Asmara brought comic strips for its GIs and once these were read they were dumped into dustbins out of which houseboys made fortune by selling them to shopkeepers who in their turn used them to wrap their merchandize.

My first encounter with English literature was therefore not copies of Shakespeare or Coleridge but Bugs Bunny, Popeye the Sailor and (why not) Tom and Jerry which I bought from the shopkeepers at the price of 10 cents each.

From such cheap magazines I learned hundreds of American idiomatic expressions and the ability to understand the use of everyday English spoken by simple people and in a matter-of-factly manner. This helped me to express myself in English with ease when people older than me struggled with their Essential English Book One, Two, Three, etc. with the result that at the end of the day they still continued to murder the Queen’s English with impunity. Lucky me, I developed such confidence in my linguistic skills that I began to write simple essays in English while still young. 

I read comic strips okay, but I read them with all my senses, with the desire to perfect my English, to learn the way real people talked to each other, to find out the usage of certain words and expressions. In brief I read with the intention of getting the maximum profit from what people liked to identify as ‘cheap’ books.

What some people could not get by reading Shakespeare for years I could get from comic strips, because I read not only with understanding of the content of the book, but with a clear purpose and goal. Hence, no written material however cheap was of little value to me. Whether Astrophysics or cheap comic strips, I knew how to profit from both. 

Reading should be likened unto a mine rich in inestimable gems. It depends on the miner to get the finest of gems by hard work and patience. A miner comes over, looks around, begins to dig and sifts for gold, and after an hour or two packs up and leaves disappointed. Another prospector arrives along with his mule, looks around, takes his spade and begins to dig. No luck. He starts again and digs all around. No luck. He persists and begins to dig, plough, shove, and sift with the utmost patience. And finally he finds not only gold dust but small specks of diamond as well.

If you look carefully around you, you can find the most precious things in even the most unlikely places. There’s no lousy book or literature but lousy brain or attitude. Of course, all books are not the same. Many are worth to be tossed away if it were not for the respect well-bred people have for writers who try their best. Well, on the other hand even fools have something to say to us if we listen carefully. Go on reading books written even by birdbrains with a special capacity to bore people to death, you can toss their books into the bottomless pit afterwards.

How many books in this world have begun as blockbusters and ended up in gutters; and how many books have begun with shouts of boos and insults and ended up as the brightest stars in the firmament of learning. The first commandment in this case should be: thou shalt not burn books!

Whoever burned the library in Alexandria thousands of years ago should have been punished in hell for slowing the progress of mankind by a thousand years!

If you are reading a book and you are prompted to think just how stupid the writer is, that by itself is learning or profiting from your reading. At least you have discovered that some people should not have been given pen and paper to write books in the first place. But then wait, their time may come.

To profit from reading try to relate things, let your imagination soar into the seventh heaven, sit on the wings of even one word as if it were Pegasus and fly your way into the land of contemplation where one can hear the rustling of the leaves of knowledge and the warbling of the birds of wisdom.

About seven years back, seated in a bar I happened to come across a discarded and crumpled cigarette packet signed Rothmans, a British-American concern. Since I had nothing special to do, I picked it up and began to read its contents. The company now operating under the British-American joint venture was established in England in 1890, and down below I could read: “smoking causes cancer”. What did I learn from my brief encounter with a cigarette ad? That the weapon of mass destruction had been invented by the two countries more than a century ago and that their joint venture has been massacring people by the millions since 1890! Thank you very much!

Some people do not seem to profit from what they read, or they simply interpret passages the way they want it in order to advance their sordid theories or doctrines. And unfortunately even if people like to read between the lines, they more often than not fail to make intelligent guesses or speculations. Reading between the lines is not for everybody!

And there are those who hate to read books but still like to be seen with them. They want to be known as book lovers or bookworms just for the heck of it.

Yorda liked to carry paperbacks (cheap fiction books) with her wherever she went. She did it to show off and pass as an educated girl. She didn’t want people to consider her simply as a girl of base appetites and ignoble motives. She was, according to her own evaluation, a model of the modern educated and independent girl.

One day a friend of mine met her in a snack bar with a book in her hand and asked her if he could borrow it for two days. She agreed and handed it over to him.

“Have you read it?” he asked.

“I am reading it for the second time, it is just superb,” she explained.

When the friend arrived home he opened the book ready for an enjoyable evening read. Alas, he found out to his dismay that some pages were missing. In fact half of the book had been mutilated and he simply could not start reading it. The girl had cheated him. She used the book to meet and entice people of good breed. How abject can you get! Yorda should have had faith in herself without having to depend on books or other external things for security.

And there are those who read, not between but off the lines. Once a friend of mine asked me whether the article I wrote in a certain newspaper was meant to disparage women. I told him that I had always been a staunch supporter of women’s rights and if he understood me incorrectly it was his problem. What made that person to come up with such twisted remark was that he himself was a misogynist (women hater) and could read in my article only what he wanted to read. He did not read the article, he read his warped mind, and confused it with reading between the lines.

And there was this lady who was invited to a jet-set dinner party along with her husband. It so happened that the group with which her husband conversed and sipped red wine began to talk about the political development in China, Turkey and Greece. The lady thought it was an easy subject to jump into and thus found herself throwing remarks now and then in the course of the high-flown and highbrow conversation.

Anyway her husband who new better advised her to stay out of the discussion and told her sternly to simply listen with a feigned interest. But to his horror and dismay she insisted in joining the discussion and began to talk about where she had bought her beautiful set of china, and how she used it to serve her well-cooked turkey, and how she took much care that the grease did not run over and stained her silk tablecloth……. It was her last attendance in similar receptions.

This lady could have kept quiet and could have listened to what the people had to say, learning simply by reading their minds. But foolish as she was, she found it too demeaning to learn from others. In fact, she could have learned a lot by moving around and analyzing people’s attitudes in a reception where food and drink come in plenty and free of charge. The animal instinct seems to come to the fore in such occasions and she could have benefited from the situation and could have written better and more informative article on anthropology without going to the jungles of Borneo.

Still again another person with a searching mind and in similar circumstances could have used such lavish banquets even to philosophize about the nature of man and his attachments to the trappings of worldly life and the emptiness of material wealth.

Tired of books? Then read the world from which you came and with whose dust you will mingle one day.

It is a divine scroll, a universal Torah, left open for every soul to read and learn the mysteries of creation and the riddle of life. Look, watch and observe! Contemplate! Say, God increase my wonderment at your creation! The world is the greatest and the last book we have available from the reading of which we can obtain everlasting wisdom.

But since not everyone is gifted with the ability to read the world, we are lucky to have it already squeezed, encapsulated and bound into books by both learned and unlearned men. So let’s make these our eternal friends and try to read them with insight and intelligence for everlasting gain and profit.

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  • http://myawate.awate.com/members/merhawi/ Merhawi

    Good advise I reckon.

    You know what would be interesting to see Mr Amanuel, a top 20 or 10 lists of your favorite books. Please?

    I never liked/enjoyed reading until I started reading the Bible (and consequently becoming a follower of Jesus) when I started Uni. And now I read fairly widely. One of my brothers says to me ‘all throughout High School, I was trying to get you to read a bit more other than just for your homework and assignments but all you wanted to do was sports’. Would have been much more beneficial to read at least a little.

  • http://awate.com/members/whistler/ Asmarino Whistler

    Dear Amanuel,
    I read your article this morning and I could help not to write about the book I am curently reading, given your firend’s experience I think I will double check if in case there is any missing pages half through the pages, as this book is such exciting one although not borrowed one but bought in second hand shop.

    The Bookseller of Kabul- a non-fiction book written by Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad, about a bookseller, Shah Muhammad Rais (whose name was changed to Sultan Khan), and his family in Kabul, Afghanistan. It takes a novelistic approach, focusing on characters and the daily issues that they face.

    This book definitely complements with your article.

    If I am allowed to point out few facts –
    * some families of The Tigre of Mensa they used to compute and read stars not only for navigation purpose but all sort of knowedge purposes which I beleive handed down through a generations. See Littmann -princeton Expedition to Abyssinia (Tigre – Mensa).
    * I am sorry if I am wrong your father memher Sahle was an English a teacher at Betegergish- far too young to be your father’s student and I thought perhaps any paternal infleunce

    best wishes,
    Whistler

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