At Smart Supermarket, there is, by the tills, a rack of bookshelves. The other day, I noticed a little girl leafing through a fairytale book while waiting for her mother.

“Tiffany put the book in place, let’s go.” The girl protested; she wanted to finish the last few pages.

“I’m not getting it for you. You already have a book at home, what do you need another one for? Let’s go and choose something from the toy shop.”

I watched the whole scene and wanted to say to the mother: “But a book is not like a bicycle – you don’t only have one.”

And then I wanted to tell her that she was really missing out on the world’s best parenting trick: a book is a much better babysitter than any toy, television, tablets, Xbox or Playstation.

In all the academic fluff that is thrown at us when high-brow people start blabbing about the importance of reading, this is never mentioned. Evarist Bartolo should borrow a budget billboard and plug reading as the best possible way to keep a child happy and noiselessly entertained while parents do their own thing. With the added bonus that the kids won’t start bawling at the end of a game because they lost.

When kids are engrossed in a book, they forget the rest of the world and are, for an hour or so, lost in their own peaceful bubble.

A Eurobarometer survey told us last week that 44 per cent of us have not read a book in the last year. Now this coincided with that time of the year – the book fair week – when politicians wheel themselves out to prattle about the obligatory need “to make reading fun”. It would be better if they told us the real reasons why it pays to read more:

By reasing we learn to sift through information and come to a reasoned opinion instead of the dreaded shrug and mhux xorta

1. Reading helps us speak. The more our language improves and therefore the more we can express ourselves. This means that when we go on Xarabank, we won’t hog a microphone just to blurt out: “Għax dana hux, x’jgħidlu hux” or “Veru prosit tal-programm”. If we read more, we’ll have the words to explain the flutter of feelings in our hearts.

2. Reading helps our thought processes. By reading we learn to sift through information, edit it and come to a reasoned opinion, instead of the dreaded shrug and “mhux xorta” accompanied by a blank face.

3. Reading helps us to write. A nation needs writers to put down in words snapshots of society. Malta sorely lacks authors, which means that, most often, our nation’s psyche stays bottled up. Only now, for example, 30 years on, we are getting writers talking about the volatile 1980s. That’s way too late – and it means society’s scars take longer to heal.

4. Reading helps to keep our prisons in check. Neil Gaiman, writing in The Guardian says how in America they easily predict prison growth on a simple algorithm based on the percen-tage of 10-year-olds couldn’t read. The lower the percentage of child read-ers, the more crowded the prison cells will be in future.

5. Reading helps us to understand. The whole world communicates online, with words. We need to be good readers to understand what is happening around us.

6. Reading helps us to empathise. When reading fiction you are alone, using your imagination, creating a world and looking at it through other people’s eyes. It’s the best training for learning to put yourself in other people’s shoes.

7. Reading helps us to escape. Fiction opens a door to a place where you are in control. And that keeps us sane.

8. Reading helps us to keep our politicians in check. Because we’ll know what’s happening around the world, and we’d have read the historical precedents, then, we’ll be able to tell our politicians what we want and we’ll be able to rise above party politics and aim for a common humanity.

Book tips for singletons: never date anyone who says they’re too busy to read. Never date anyone who only reads the Gwida. Never date anyone who has a television in the bedroom. Do snoop at the books your datee has on the bedside table – they say a lot about them.

Book tips for parents: how do you get kids to read? Buy them comics. Read them out loud to your children, changing voices as you go along (make sure you remember each distinctive voice for each character). Let them see that you enjoy reading and that you have a changing pile of books by your bedside. Every week, take them to a bookshop or a library and tell them they can choose whichever book they like. Do not make them read out loud – you do that for them.

A final note to the supermarket mother. Albert Einstein was asked once how we could make our children intelligent. His reply was: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

krischetcuti@gmail.com

Twitter: @KrisChetcuti

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