In secondary schools all over the country, reading is viewed as uncool. But worse, for some boys it is almost an indictment against their masculinity. Books, of any kind, are alien objects. They contain information, maybe some pictures, but they dare not been seen to contain that most catholic of qualities: pleasure.
Some all-boys schools have been forced to make the study of English language and literature compulsory; sensing that if given the choice, students would rather study other things like additional mathematics and accounting. The freedom of critical thought, the challenging of world perspectives and the beauty of the written word contained in books are not enough to counter the taboo associations books now have. Books are for girls.
This attitude coalesces with a more general problem of male under-achievement, a phenomenon which has rotted our finest secondary school institutions from the inside out. Boys, in addition to not reading, apparently do not and are not meant to study. The result: girls today by far out-match boys in terms of academic and verbal excellence. Boys are relegated to an illiterate and unambitious ghetto, and are encouraged to stay there.
And it gets worse.
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association boys are more prone to having trouble reading than girls, and the reason is not due only to behaviour. Researchers found that in all studies, about 20 percent of the boys had reading disabilities compared with 11 percent of the girls. Because boys are more likely than girls to have reading difficulties like dyslexia or even other problems like poor vision, to encourage boys to read is fraught with even more difficulty.
In Trinidad and Tobago, all of this is complicated by the fact that we do not truly have a discursive culture; a culture that encourages the critical thought and debate that only books and magazines can fuel. We have bookshops, we have books. But we have few local publishers and a very small publishing industry.
As my friend Nicholas Laughlin, the editor of the Caribbean Review of Books, has pointed out, this is worsened by the lack of proper distribution channels for those few who dare to take up the task of publishing in the region.
So that it’s not just boys who aren’t reading. It’s their parents. And brothers and sisters and friends. Our neglect of our local publishing industry is like our neglect of the academic needs of young boys growing up in a chaotic world which, increasingly, must now turn to the tools and analysis which only books can provide.
How can we start to reverse the problem of boys not reading enough when we don’t even seem serious about reading ourselves? How can we set an example to young people about the value of literature when we readily sponsor ephemeral things like parang and carnival fetes and do little or nothing to develop and nurture the publishing industry and, hence, the next generation of great Caribbean writers?