Pleasure denied

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Curling up with a classic like Tolstoy’s War and Peace by the fireplace is a disappearing habit. Mainly because fireplaces are so darn expensive, but also because reading for pleasure is a dying art. Lying about having read the classics is, on the other hand, blossoming. More than 60% of us have pretended that we’ve read a classic, according to a study. Since it was World Book Day on Monday, let us play with a question: Why don’t we read more? 

Admittedly, the reason we don’t read classics is that we don’t want to. It’s fairly easy to find free copies of War and Peace, Anna Karenina and the likes online, but since they were written for a different time, most people don’t consider them worth the effort. But why do we also shy away from epic bestsellers that the majority of people actually enjoy reading once they’ve started?

To begin with, books are ridiculously expensive in this country, proportionally to what people earn. A newly-released book can cost Rs700, a hard copy Rs1,000. For an average person on an average Rs12,000 salary, that is a huge amount. It is nearly one tenth of what most people go home with at the end of the working month – more if we take into account that many Mauritians earn less than Rs10,000. 

The second problem is the miserable state of our public libraries. Even the great big flagship, the National Library in Port Louis, comes across as a sad, ill-thought-out collection of random books. There is a fair-sized Pakistani corner, probably explained by the generosity of that country’s government. But can we realistically expect in-depth analysis on Asian history to make Mauritians more eager to read for pleasure? Hardly. Moreover, there are no comfortable seats; no place to grab a coffee nearby. The National Library has as little in common with its equivalents in most developed countries as a monkey has with a screwdriver. 

The only exception to the misery is the National Assembly Library, which even possesses some of the latest romance novels. But since the public isn’t welcome there, unless they make a special request to visit, we must assume that it’s the MPs who get all that literary love. There is nothing wrong in romance reads per se (you enjoy that latest Nora Roberts, ministers!) but would it be impossible to offer the public a library of the same standards?

It’s a pity, this status quo, since the cognitive benefits of reading are so many. Reading decreases mental decline, helps the brain remain active, improves vocabulary, and even boosts emotional intelligence, studies show. We won’t get that from Netflix or the MBC. 

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