Leadership Stories

I read, therefore I am


story by Joan Bungar, reading and writing consultant, and a literacy advocate


“When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.” Desiderius Erasmas, Rotterdam (1466-1536), Philosopher

It was my mother who taught me that a book is the most powerful learning tool we have. The revelation was an addendum to her explanation as to why the pen is mightier than the sword. Books, she said were a key part of learning, thinking, and developing your grasp of the language so that your ideas could flow freely out of your pen. Mother wasted no time cultivating a love of books and strong literacy skills in her four children. 

So 34 years later, I was reading to my child before she was born. I read aloud to her while I was in the office, reading her paragraphs of the annual report, speech, or policy document I was drafting at the time. Unsurprisingly, I had grown up making my living with my pen

During breakfast, I read to my bump from the various local, regional, and international newspapers that I was required to read for work every day. It helped me get past a solitary breakfast without the previously-regulation coffee. After work, I read aloud the novels I gobbled up for pleasure. So Growing Bump heard it all: Angela’s Ashes, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The God of Small Things, Sophie’s World, The English Patient, Trainspotting, The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, Wild Swans – best reads of the nineties. It was our music, there being nothing on the nineties music scene then that appealed to me. 

We all read – avidly, voraciously.  The man I eventually married could read on buses – much to my envy. So I watched him methodically ingest Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy on the long bus rides to and from uni. My siblings and I hovered around each other, always curious about the titles the other was reading, and maybe even a little envious. Now, that we live in different countries, we exchange notes on our current titles via WhatsApp. Our collective love of reading — bequeathed to us by our late mother, who pooh-poohed kindergarten and herself taught us all to read, write, count, and tell time before we went to school — has often been remarked upon. 

Reading as an escape

In the late noughties, my semi-conscious mother’s doctor poked his head around the door of her hospital room and interjected: “Boy, you guys sure love reading!” He had come upon all six of us – my siblings and I, my daughter, and my niece — in Mum’s hospital room, each with a nose stuck in a respective book.  Reading was the only reprieve we had as we kept guard while Mum ebbed away accompanied by the whirring, wheezing, beeping, and pinging of the plethora of medical gadgets in her room, her heart slowly but surely failing with each beat. Our books transported us — other shores, distant rooms, faraway scenes, sci-fi futures – when the present, tense with the oppressive odor of hospital antiseptic and its implications for a soon-to-be motherless future, got too much to bear. Though our books were our saving grace then, none of us can recall a single title we read through those last few months.    

“What are you reading now?” Mum would ask as I prepared to step out the door. A book occupies a child and keeps them out of mischief was her firm belief – it is mine, too. Growing up, my daughter had a little backpack stocked with a book, a pad, and crayons at the ready at all times by the front door. I still take my current read with me when I step out, as does my daughter. My husband reads his books off his phone – he’s working his way through the classics.

At various points in my life books have been different things to me. A book alleviates boredom and keeps me from grinding my teeth while I wait for my terminally late husband to show. It can transport you to a brave new world. Some transcend the humdrum of daily life and sweep you up into transports of exquisite delight. Others open up a whole new vista by intimating a new way to think about something or trigger a walk down memory lane. Leafing through a recipe book enables feasting without calories or weight gain. Some books are like a soothing balm while others can be a call to arms. Some can even make you turn over a new leaf – pardon the pun.

Literacy, Self-esteem & Independence

This passionate affair with the written word is what drives my volunteer efforts with a local adult literacy program a couple of decades later. Here, I work with anyone aged 18 and up, who for any number of reasons – civil strife, war, family violence, geographical and cultural barriers, illness, lack of means or access – may have had their schooling interrupted and so need to skill up. Literacy is a vital skill in an increasingly automated society. It touches on all aspects of our daily life: real or virtual, local or global scale, work or play. 

My students frequently note the enjoyment they derive from the new-found independence that is a corollary to becoming literate and numerate. They can keep track of their money, pay their own taxes, vote for their preferred candidate in elections, take care of all those little ‘personal admin’ tasks like everyone else, and manage their correspondence — by themselves, in their own time, and on their own terms. 

Psychologists call this ‘locus of control’; it describes the degree of control that an individual feels they have over their life. An individual with an internal locus of control will feel confident that they are able to control the outcomes of events in their life through their own efforts. The profound impact that this sense of control and responsibility has on an individual’s self-esteem cannot be overstated. It also has implications for the individual’s sense of belonging and acceptance, and competence. All three — control and responsibility, belonging and acceptance, acceptance – in modern society are predicated on strong basic literacy skills.

It has been my privilege to see students blossom and step into their own power as their literacy skills grew. Their increased self-confidence enabled them to eventually direct their own learning, and measure their own growth against goals they identified for themselves, in plans they designed in tandem with their instructors. 

A World of Books

There is a wealth of writing that will enable you to broaden your horizons and understand this great, big beautiful world in which we live. Where to start? How to start? This is my favorite part of work. I tell anyone who claims to dislike reading that they simply have not found their genre. Your local librarian should be able to point you in the right direction. And if that particular book does not appeal, return it and find another. 

Readers are smarter

There is a wealth of research that attests to the fact that readers are smarter. They are more articulate, have a wider vocabulary, cogitate faster and more nimbly, and are likely more interesting company. 

Reading a book from start to finish takes time, commitment, discipline, persistence, and concentration. You don’t just learn what the book contains but focus, concentration, and persistence as well. Reading enables us to learn about experiences we may not have had or can’t ourselves have. This may make us more empathetic, aware, and open-minded. 

Reading is a stress buster

Studies show that reading reduces stress more quickly than listening to music or having a cuppa; perhaps because when you read a book, you’re drawn into its world and forget the stressors in yours. Thirty minutes a day spent quietly reading a book you enjoy without interruption will lower your heart rate and blood pressure. 

Read for your children

Children with parents who read for pleasure, do better in school. They are more reading-ready on Day 1 of school than others — an advantage that predisposes them to do well academically throughout their school years. If you are a parent, there is no greater reason to cultivate an interest in books. 

A parent is a child’s first teacher. What the scholarly literature describes as a “rich home literacy environment” — a home where a parent is fond of books and reading — sets your child up for academic success. There are global movements that seek to address poverty by supporting disadvantaged parents to read with their children so that they start preschool with basic literacy skills, and are thus on a more equal footing with their affluent peers. 

Read for fun

Last but not least, reading is fun. Read for pure entertainment voraciously and the rest will follow. Reading is my addiction. But it is a good one to have, I think. It’s a habit I urge everyone to cultivate and one I work hard to instill in both young and old. There is no need to emulate Desiderius’ extreme example — books don’t need to come before food and clothing. But they must be on your list. How else will you grow bold and free?



Meet and connect with Joan:

Joan Bungar is a reading and writing consultant and a literacy advocate who believes that literacy is a superpower within everyone’s grasp. Connect with Joan on LinkedIn or Facebook.