“Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” Ecclesiastes 12:12b
I have owned many books and written and published a few of my own. Belonging to a literate society, as well as a family that owned and read books, Joice and I always had books around us, and we learned to read at a young age. We later realized how fortunate we were. Although literacy opened the world of books to us, it was not that way with a group we lived with in Papua New Guinea (nor for a good part of the world).
When we began to work with the Kewa language people in 1958, we had taken for granted our cultural heritage of literacy. The Kewa people, on the other hand, could not read and had nothing to read. Their language was unwritten, and it was our job and privilege to analyze the sound system and compile an alphabet. We then had to provide introductory materials to help the people learn to read and write their own language. Joice wrote primers and teaching materials, and she began to teach people to read and write Kewa. I concentrated more on the grammatical analysis and (later) translation. It took several years before there was a group of Kewa men (mainly) who could read their language. The women, as always it seemed, did not have the opportunity until later.
The government and mission agencies established schools in Kewa villages, but the medium of instruction was English, although at the time no one spoke English fluently. Many men, who had been indentured laborers on the coast, spoke Pidgin English, which bears some historical relationship to English but was a trade language. But, at the time, there were no written materials in that language either.
Learning to read is a wonderful example of intellectual ability and curiosity and, fortunately, there are proven methods for instruction. It was not simple, however, for any adult to learn to read, and we wanted to teach the Kewa adults. Children, we knew, would learn quickly, but they might also undermine the authority of their adults by showing off their capability. So, we taught some adult men to read—it took a lot of time and patience and, fortunately, Joice had both. Me—not so much. It is (almost) like a miracle when an adult suddenly realizes the connection between the letters on a page and how to make those sounds with the mouth, and then how to write the sounds.
Literacy is truly a gift, but it hasn’t always been that way. According to sources on the Internet, “It has been estimated that at least 90 percent of the Jewish population of Roman Palestine in the first centuries CE could merely write their own name or not write and read at all, or that the literacy rate was about 3 percent.”
It follows that the Scriptures were only read by a handful, and the common person could not read them at all. Consequently, learning Scripture was by rote memory and prayers, and (later) Creeds were memorized and recited at synagogue and church services. William Tyndale and Martin Luther, in English and German respectively, changed that, and we should be very thankful
We may think that most Americans can read, but in Texas, the literacy rate is 81% among adults. Our country ranks 125th in the world. Ukraine and Latvia, for example, rank much higher than the US, while Japan’s rate is 99%, China’s is almost 97% and Mexico's is over 95%. The literacy rate in Papua New Guinea is 37%.
While we were on a furlough in Pennsylvania one year, I substitute taught in a local High School. In one class (as I recall, called “remedial English”), I had students in 12th grade who could read only at a low primary school level. Clearly, their literacy ability was poor, and basic skills were lacking.
According to William Shiell (Delivering from memory: The effect of performance on the early Christian audience, 2011), “A contributing factor to the widespread use of native languages and relatively low levels of literacy was the loose, unorganized education system during the late republican and early imperial Rome. Formal education was limited to large urban centers, and a full education from basic skills to full scribal literacy was available only to the elite. Ironically groups of slaves achieved a higher level of education than most of the middle and lower classes.” In fact, Graeco-Roman “literacy” consisted of the ability to read and write Greek or Latin. That was of extreme importance when it came to reading the Bible.
However, even today, many Christians do not seem to read the Bible with a high degree of understanding. The English version of the Bible they choose is important. Although the King James Bible is still the most popular, it represents, for the most part, English as it was spoken over 400 years ago. Most Christians do not realize that the KJV follows the earlier translation by William Tyndale. Tyndale could speak seven languages and was proficient in ancient Hebrew and Greek. He produced an excellent translation, and he wanted English men and women to understand the good news in their own. Subsequently, almost 80% of the KJV followed Tyndale, who had translated a Bible that could be understood—at the time—by the common man. He might be surprised (or even appalled) to know that his version (vis-à-vis the KJV) is still used.
We are indeed fortunate to know how to read, to have books to read, and to have Bible versions that are easy to understand. God has blessed us with books and literacy! However, this is still not the case for over 1,500 languages in the world.
Of the making of books, there may be no end, but the intelligent reading of them seems to end quite easily.