The UAE president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, recently announced a new “national law of reading”. Along with other measures, government employees will have dedicated time to read while at work (albeit only reading that will aid professional or personal development), coffee shops will have to offer reading material to customers, and library branches will be opened in shopping centres.
But to what extent should governments should be encouraging reading? An initial answer is that governments already do. Worlwide, most states provide some level of education to their citizens – at a minimum, children are usually taught to read and write. Worldwide literacy has gone from about 20% at the beginning of the twentieth century to about 86.3% currently, a dramatic increase which is mostly due to the establishment of state-funded education.
Teaching reading is not necessarily the same as encouraging it. In fact, some schools, although they teach reading, also actively discourage it, by using it as a punishment, and treating it as an activity that students are forced to do, rather than as something that they should enjoy. This goes back to a problem that seems to arise whenever a debate about reading is had: the idea that reading is somehow “good”. Not just beneficial (there are studies that have repeatedly shown that reading increases concentration and has other cognitive benefits), but that it has some moral goodness that neither watching TV nor playing videogames have. The idea that we should read not for enjoyment, but because reading is intrinsically better than other pastimes, is problematic, because it alienates those who don’t enjoy reading, and especially those who are forced to read against their wishes (who almost always end up hating it). If reading is to be encouraged, it should never be forced on people.
This question has a lot more to do with how much each one of us believes that governments should interfere or participate in people’s lives, and a lot less to do with reading. And, in that sense, I have a definite, but not simple, answer: governments are responsible, as part of their duty to provide education, to make reading accessible to all of their citizens. This includes funding libraries and encouraging initiatives that make books available to more people – but that is where it stops. Especially where encouragement and obligation have been conflated, people should not be encouraged to read. But they should always have the option to do so.