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Wisdom of the printed page

Updated: 2014-02-22 07:56
By Raymond Zhou ( China Daily)

One reads classics such as Confucius' Analects or Shakespeare not to pass examinations or provide grist for the water-cooler mill, but to absorb nutrients from the wealth shared by humanity and to make ourselves better people.

However, it would be unfair to compare the current generation with their ancestors. In antiquity, the ability to read effectively divided people into haves and have-nots. It became a channel through which a few from the disenfranchised classes moved up the social ladder. As a whole, the vast majority remained illiterate. As the benefits of basic education envelop the entire Chinese population, the stumbling block for this most basic level of reading has been removed. Now, it's up to each individual to decide what kind of information or knowledge he or she is willing to pursue. A school or a teacher can demand that you read what is mandatory, but unless you design a comprehensive curriculum that incorporates the wealth-enriching and the soul-enriching, you'll probably push those "useless" books down to the bottom of your priority list.

The computer age, with its unlimited data-crunching capability, has unleashed a treasure trove of information. For someone long shielded from data and information, the rawness and liveliness can be spellbinding. But it takes tons of information to be distilled into knowledge.

In our society there is an undercurrent of skepticism and aversion toward knowledge, which in the old days was spoon-fed with little room left for questioning. People, therefore, want to be closer to the source and conduct their own little investigation or analysis, which sometimes leads to new revelations. As a result, the pendulum has swung from the end of blind acceptance of everything printed to the other end of DIY scrutiny of every piece of data. I have to say this correction was needed and will eventually balance out the weight of both information and knowledge, which tend to be embodied in digital and print respectively.

The road from knowledge to wisdom has equally been subverted by the digital revolution. The epiphanies derived from reading Hamlet or Li Bai's poems have been displaced by 12-step programs and morsels of wisdom that zap through cyberspace. On a positive note, they can be seen as CliffsNotes to the real thing; but this quasi-sagacity serves to lull its readership into a false sense of enlightenment. Wisdom cannot be drummed into you through rote learning, nor can it always be boiled down to 140 characters. It has to come from learning through personal experiences or through books, which are essentially those aspects of others' experiences that can be imparted and shared.

Serious reading, on whatever platform or in whatever form, has its place in the advance of human civilization. All technological breakthroughs, such as the audio-visual revolution of the previous generation and now the digital revolution, all serve to complement it. Words as the all-powerful embodiment of human knowledge are never overrated and will never be totally replaced. More Chinese will realize their importance as the nation grows into middle-class comfort. The younger generations can afford to read books that are not utilitarian, at least the segment not addicted to Korean soap operas and their face-lifted idols. As Francis Bacon famously said, studies can be "for delight, for ornament, and for ability", and "delight" should rightly include the joy of elevating oneself to a level with a higher vista, which, unlike a high-rise apartment, money alone cannot buy.

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