Reading is a miracle. What you are doing right now is seriously wonderful.

How can we scan the single letters so quickly, making words, sentences and paragraphs, and, in an instant, sew them together into something that opens up the world? Our scientists are still puzzled by this act of magic. The ability of children to look at those quirky squiggles on a page and understand concepts, ideas and feelings sent to them by others through time and space still remains a mystery. Simple words transform into tales and stories steeped in wisdom and knowledge, bringing with them, past and future worlds far beyond their experience, but not their understanding. The child’s awareness grows richer with every book they read. The words they read become part of them, absorbed in their very being, allowing them to expand their knowledge and understanding.

Reading allows the world to flow through us in all its complexity, bringing gifts rich in humanity and exploration. We learn, we are amazed, we travel in other people’s lives for a while, we think, we puzzle, we disagree, we learn – we share the worlds of thoughts and feelings. What a privilege.

And most of us take it for granted, this gift.

Can you imagine a world where there are no books, no way of reading the information we need to fully function in our complex world? Knowledge would be denied, potential smothered, the world would be dimmed.

We would have no way of transferring knowledge from one to another. What would this really mean? The world’s scientists could not hand on what they have learnt in medicine, astronomy, engineering, technology – and more. The list is almost endless. If our laws were not written down there would be no justice, we would have arbitrary regulations, people would suffer. Without agreements in writing there would be no contracts and we would fall victim to anarchy. News about the condition of the world would vanish and our accumulated knowledge with it. We would not understand our own history nor read about visions of a better future. There would no way to accumulate the knowledge of the past.

And think of the loss of great writing? We would never hear the voices of understanding that have rung through the centuries. We would never thrill to the great stories or weep at the human condition; we would never laugh over foolishness or rise to the tales of heroes. These books, in their millions, are one of the greatest achievements of human kind. They are a towering achievement to our capacity to express what it is like to be alive.  A glorious world of human expression would perish, each one of us would be denied a voice.

There are 129,864,880 books on earth right at this moment and we know there will be many more to come. It is impossible to gauge the number of other written communications most of us use in our day-to-day work. How many e-mails are sent a day I wonder?

With this cultural and practical wealth at our disposal, can you imagine what it would be like not to read?  To have no access to anything written on the planet: no newspapers, books, magazines, legal documents, instructions, information, signs, e-mails, letters and information. A person would be vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Their own potential would be crushed. Many political régimes have tried to do just this. To gain total control, they have denied or injured the right to learn to read, it is the ultimate tool of suppression.

Is it really true that 48% of Tasmanians cannot read properly?

If it is, we must change this situation now, with everything we’ve got. 

Neil Cameron has been in the forefront of cultural development since 1973 and has directed and produced over two hundred major projects. He has written four books and has a PhD in Cultural Studies. Here, Neil writes for the Communicating: The Heart Of Literacy initiative – find more at chattermatters.com.au.