An entry in the Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum
Award for Essays & Journalism
The title of this article is taken from a tee-shirt our high school inspector showed us when visiting our school. He used the slogan to teach us the importance of reading
IF writers don’t compare the edited versions of work they submit to PNG Attitude or the Crocodile Prize with the original articles chances are they will never improve their writing.
If you don’t read what others are writing on this blog or elsewhere, you cannot measure your own standing of where you are at with your writing.
If you cannot accept objective criticism of what you write, and learn a thing or two from it, you will struggle to break free from the mold you have created for yourself.
And if you cannot learn to separate fact from opinion, you cannot expect to become a critical reader and thinker.
Quite simply, you cannot be a good writer if you don’t read; and read you must - obsessively and compulsively. You need to stretch your mind to forge your own literary signature – your own characteristic style.
Reach out to the places in your mind where creation and innovation are happening. I dare you to try. Where you end up, I cannot say. But one thing I know is that, over time, you can become a good writer if you put mind to it.
Science tells us that reading activates brain activity, just as lifting weights stimulates muscle growth. Any exercise to motivate the brain causes it to remain active and creative.
And the secret is to enjoy what you read and write.
If you do less reading over time, you will be cut off from certain sources of knowledge and information and become almost as uninformed and ignorant as the average villager, whose concerns do not even include things happening in the next valley.
And what you write won’t be taken seriously because it will lack depth or originality – sometimes both.
When I was in high school, I used to compete with another boy to read a book (usually a novel), in the shortest time possible.
We started with two weeks as the maximum time to complete a book. As we grew bolder, we reduced the length of time to a week.
If we gave an hour or two every day to reading, we found that we could reduce the time further to a couple of days. This was crazy as there were no tangible rewards and we had school work to do. But we kept at it.
The bottom line was that we had to be honest with each other.
I think between us we probably read the library. We did not get into the Guinness Book of Records, but we were rewarded in many other ways.
I am proud to recall that the young man, who is from my district, is now a senior geologist working for one of Australia’s leading companies. The last time I heard, he had completed his postgraduate studies while still working and secured residency status in Australia for himself and his family.
At high school I went further and wrote on small cards the difficult words I came across along with their meanings. I also wanted to see how exactly how they were used in sentences. Gradually I realised I had improved my vocabulary and also improved my general knowledge.
I read history - Napoleon, the Greeks and Romans, and the Egyptians.
I read The Black Arrow, The Call of the Wild, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Treasurer Island, The Three Musketeers, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God, My Mother Calls me Yaltep and The Crocodile, to list just a few.
I read the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys detective story series. And I read science books.
A couple of things happened during my time in high school that confirmed the power of reading.
The first was during a morning English class in Grade 7 when our English Teacher walked in with a copy the reading and comprehension text book. As he was strolling to the front of the classroom, he asked a simple question: “What does it mean to comprehend?”
I had already looked up the root word of comprehension, ‘comprehend’, in an old dictionary. My heart was pounding in my chest and I wanted to put my hand up, but being small and timid I waited a while for the bigger students to respond. None did.
So I raised my hand and simply said: “to understand” to which our teacher replied, ‘Precisely’.
Everyone looked in my direction. As students in a rural school it was a big word to us. I felt myself blushing for being the centre of attention on that cold morning.
There was another event which strengthened my view of the power of reading.
We were preparing for the Grade 10 written expression examination. I made notes and rehearsed a story about a traditional feast in the village. I went over the main lines again and again and went beyond that by visualising how the event would take place.
When I sat for the exam, I was writing what my mind had already recorded. The words came to me smoothly and easily; some from memory, others because I had read widely.
I remember leaving the examination hall half an hour earlier than everyone else, satisfied that I had written as well as I could. When the results arrived, I had scored the highest mark in the school and among the highest in the whole province.
When I wrote a secondary school essay once, our Canadian English teacher gave me zero because he concluded I had plagiarized it.
To prove his belief, he took me to his office and grilled me on every aspect of the essay. He was particularly keen to test me on some of the words I had used, for he contended they were too difficult for a secondary school student.
I answered his questions and correctly defined the big words. He was impressed and agreed my work was original. He gave me the highest mark in the class.
These days I am not surprised to read that high achievers such as Dr Ben Carson (one of the world’s most gifted neurosurgeons) put emphasis on the power of reading and in-depth learning; and the importance of thinking big and giving one’s best.
If you develop a healthy reading habit early in life and learn more than the minimum prescribed, you will come to appreciate the incredible power of the mind.
And with that, you can end up changing the slogan from ‘If you can read this, thank a teacher!’ to ‘If you can read this, thank yourself!’