If I ruled the world: Henning Mankell

Everyone should be able to read this column—I'd use my powers to eradicate illiteracy
December 12, 2012

Photo: Adrian Sherratt Photography Ltd/Rex Features

I’m sure that even the smallest child experiences the desire to rule the world, whether as a result of anger or innocent hubris. A parent forbidding a child from going out onto a jetty, or somewhere else where there’s a risk of drowning, could provoke this reaction. Both the child and the parents know the water is barely a hand’s breadth deep. And yet the child is still forbidden. Everyone can identify with the furious reaction such a situation justifiably provokes.

Most people revisit this desire for personal hegemony on a regular basis in later life. Not least when faced with idiotic rules, bureaucracy which lacks rhyme or reason, or with people who don’t seem to be able to comprehend a word one says. In the name of personal hegemony, I, for one, think that all available resources should be used to root out the stupidity that manifests itself in idiotic or pointless bureaucratic rules. Naturally, as well as carrying out an immediate ban on noisy lawnmowers, loud jet skis and unnecessary music which blasts out wherever you go, I would ban more serious things, such as crime.

What a wonderfully idiotic thought: to ban crime! To rule the world and use this limitless power to ban an entire state of affairs seems to me to be both parodic and pointless.

Better, then, to use this power to eradicate one of the greatest injustices we humans continue to accept, even now, at the beginning of the 21st century.

I’m referring to the fact that this text makes no sense at all to far too many millions of people. They will never be able to understand my thoughts or how I express what I think. For all of them, what is written here is only a collection of symbols leaping around in seemingly endless chaos.

I’m talking about illiteracy. The fact that, even in this day and age, millions of people are forced to live their lives without the ability to read written texts or to write themselves; people for whom there is no reason ever to enter a bookshop or to pick up a pen.

For me, as a writer, and completely dependent on being in command of the instruments of both reading and writing, this would be a terrible fate. I do not hesitate in regarding illiteracy in the same light as an epidemic plague, which can, on a spiritual level, be compared to a disease such as smallpox. We have managed to eradicate that disease. How is it possible that we have not eradicated illiteracy? No one can say that we lack the tools and resources. There are no unknown elements in illiteracy as there often are in the search for cures or vaccines for other diseases. From a purely technical point of view, it’s hard to imagine anything easier than teaching people to read and write .

You could, of course, question my choice of target as ruler of the world. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to stretch the bow as far as it will go? To, instead of eradicating illiteracy, deal with the extreme poverty that affects so many people in the world? Particularly now, when the gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing wider all the time. But I stand by my decision. I believe quite simply that it would be impossible to eradicate poverty as long as millions of people cannot read or write. I believe that most of the important problems in the world today cannot be solved when so many people are unable to receive information via books, newspapers and computer screens.

Radio is just not good enough at disseminating information. Really poor people can rarely, if ever, record radio programmes and then listen to them again later on. With a book, you can go back and re-read it time and time again. Nor do I believe that it’s possible to send as many lecturers out into the world as would be needed to spread important information to those who can’t read.

So I stand by my choice. As ruler of the world, I choose to call for a final battle against illiteracy, to be fought with energy and focus. It must be eradicated within a year and no longer.

And with that, the foundations of a stronger and more sensible world would be laid; one in which world rulers would no longer be needed.

Common sense never acts alone. Common sense demands solidarity. Common sense demands that illiteracy be eradicated.

Anyone disagree?