Dean's Speech: Address by Professor Gabriel Leung at the Graduation Ceremony of Canossa College

28 May 2019

The Place of Books in Our Lives

Supervisor [Catherine Siu-Yuk] Wong, Principal [Anny] Wong, council members, honoured guests, teachers, parents, friends, and most of all graduates,

I want to thank you all for inviting me to share this day with you.  A graduation is always an auspicious occasion, and it is an absolute privilege for me to be here.

A few weeks back we passed a day that I suspect was not as auspicious as today for any of us, but one that got me thinking.  It was April 23rd.  It got me thinking, because April 23rd has been marked by the United Nations as “World Book Day”.  They selected the date for it coincides with the Shakespeare’s death, 403 years ago to be precise, as well as few other deaths and births related to the literary history that fall near the date.  What I thought about was the place of books in our society, a thought that had been percolating in my mind for a while now.

There’s a line from Henry VIII that goes “a beggar’s book outworths a noble’s blood”.  A very high estimation of the power and importance of the written word.  But, does that quote hold true in our world today?  Are books still held in such esteem?  Are they still objects of power?

I was in London last week, and I was struck by just how ubiquitous books were.  This was especially true on the Tube, which is what they call the underground train system.  On most train rides around half of the commuters had their nose in a book.  That’s a stark contrast to what I see on the MTR here.  If I got on the MTR and saw half the train reading books I would be taken aback.  On a normal MTR journey I’d guess that well over half have their smart phones out, of course this doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be reading books on their devices, but let’s be honest, they fall mostly into three camps: those who are on Instagram, Facebook, WeChat or some other form of social media; those who are streaming videos of soap operas; and those who are playing online games.  It doesn’t take an expert to ascertain the relative emptiness of such pursuits on the handheld phone, which are essentially glorified Skinner boxes, you press a button and you get rewarded, so you press the button again. All phone manufacturers and social media companies have armies of behavioural scientists to research how to get you hooked for longer and longer periods with every new version of each app.

This distinction, between a culture that reads and a culture that swipes, is very interesting to me.  I’m very wary here of seeming like a luddite, a member of the older generation dismissing technology they don’t understand.  I don’t want to be dismissive.  I want to genuinely pause and reflect on the implications of the value we place, or choose not to place, on books.  What happens to a society that falls out of love with reading, that doesn’t get exposed to literature, prose and verse.

It occurs to me that this distinction should feel very pertinent to all of you in this moment.  All of you have just completed a massive step in your educational journey, a journey that has been mostly centred on the written word.  You get your information from books, you study, mostly, from books, in paper or electronic form.  The growth in your knowledge and wisdom through education has been mostly built on a bedrock of reading books about topics.  If books are less effective, then why do they still represent such a large component of how we educate the youth.  I genuinely wonder, are our educational institutions out of sync with modern realities, or has our modern reality lost touch with the value of books?  If books are genuinely as redundant as they seem to be treated, I think you’d see consequential changes in our methods of instruction at elite education institutions such as this very school.

When I mention reading here, don’t let the educational context fool you into thinking that I am referring only to non-fiction and reference reading.  I think the importance of reading, even as it pertains to a career and professional life goes far beyond reading what is directly relevant.  There is a lot to be said for well-rounded readers, who have dipped their toes into lots of genres, forms, and styles of writing.  There is life experience to be gained from Dostoyevsky and Keats as there is from J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown.  As a thought experiment, imagine two doctors, one of whom has read 100 medical text books, and another who has read 95 medical text books and 5 fiction books of his choosing.  I would posit that very likely the second of the two would be the better doctor, not to mention much more fun at parties.  The importance of reading, from my perspective, is not limited to such personal benefits however.

Not long after April 23rd, falls May 8th, which is traditionally held as the Catholic feast day for a handful of saints, including for Magdalene of Canossa, the namesake of this school. Magdalene of Canossa, of course, was known for connecting with and taking care of the poor. And that links those two dates in my mind, because one of the overlooked values of books and reading is what it does to poverty.  Books are a great social leveller, they blur the lines between classes, when the rich and the poor alike have access to books, and to education, I believe the gap between them narrows and everyone benefits.  We are lucky in Hong Kong, to have an adult literacy rate of 96%.  And, according to the World Bank, the global rate sits around 87%, which is also a good sign.  But what we do with our literacy is important.

While I might hold that reading is a vital part of lifelong learning and creating well-rounded individuals who succeed in society, I also concede that determining the value of books doesn’t fall to me.  It is a question we each must ask ourselves.  I want each of you to think about what you might gain from keeping up an active reading habit, and what you might miss out on if you don’t.  I want you to think about the trade-off you make between spending extra time on social media or playing games instead of reading or doing other activities.  I can honestly say that all my most successful colleagues are avid readers, and it’s not a coincidence. So, I leave you with a personal question, to which you must at some point find a personal answer.  Simply put, can you take a little time out of each day to pick up a book?  And, in accordance with your school’s educational theme for the year, which I’ve been told is ‘from pass to surpass’, if you hope to achieve great success in your life, and be at the forefront of your field, can you afford not to?