The word as sword

2013-04-08 00:00

“LIBRARIANS are heroes,” says Archie L. Dick, professor in the Department of Information Science at the University of Pretoria. “Especially public librarians.”

Dick recalled how, growing up in Steenberg township on the Cape Flats, librarians enjoyed the same status as a priest or a teacher. “They would welcome you and then a new world would be opened up to you.

“Librarians in townships often risked their lives keeping libraries open during protests, challenging the young activists. They became places for debate.”

Dick was in Pietermaritzburg recently to give the 20th annual Alan Paton Memorial Lecture on the local campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal and to launch the South African edition of his book The Hidden History of South Africa’s Book and Reading Culture.

Dick is a trained librarian — “my family couldn’t afford to have me do a degree in biochemistry — but there was a bursary to study library science”.

He now holds a bachelor’s and an honours bachelor’s degree in librarianship from the University of the Western Cape, a master’s degree from the University of Washington in Seattle, and a Ph.D. from the University of Cape Town. Dick was deputy-chairperson of the Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression Committee of IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations ) from 2009 to 2011, and is now chairperson of the National Council of Library and Information Services.

“My interest in the history of reading was driven by my background in librarianship. It drove me to look more seriously at what was said about reading.”

Reading tends to be broadly categorised as either a leisure activity — as in reading for pleasure — or educational, a distinction that doesn’t stand close scrutiny. “During the liberation struggle, many books were banned, but not classics by Charles Dickens and Emile Zola, and their books were read both to educate and for leisure. So the distinction blurs according to the circumstances.”

How that distinction blurs was a key feature of Dick’s lecture, titled: “Our common cultures and our common reading cultures”, in which he explored those times in our past “when common reading cultures emerged, survived and even thrived, despite the ways in which repressive regimes sought to destroy or limit the impact of reading and writing for their own purposes”.

For example, in the Cape Town of the early 19th century, there was a common reading culture that united readers of different races and religions, slave and free. “Besides newspapers, books in English and Dutch were also available to common readers. Slave apprentices who became subscribers of the Popular or Penny Library in 1834 could, just as the more well-heeled subscribers of the elitist South African Public Library, read Shakespeare’s plays, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Pilgrim’s Progress, as well as Thomas Pringle’s South African Sketches. In these circumstances, reading interests converged in curious ways.”

The books of Charles Dickens were serialised in newspapers and, as a result, interest in his characters was shared by readers of different classes. “Sergeant Buzfuz and Augustus Snodgrass of Pickwick Papers became well-known through the pages of the Cape Town Mail and Mirror of Court and Council in 1841, and the African Journal introduced David Copperfield to readers in 1849.

“About a century later, reading cultures continued to connect South Africans in special ways. Prue Smith, in her book The Morning Light: A South African Childhood Revalued, recorded how as a teenager in the thirties, she was a reader for the illiterate black servants in her parents’ household. Among the books she read were Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop and A Christmas Carol, as well as Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.

Such books could be read differently and interpretation split along political lines, said Dick. “Student activists read David Copperfield, Bleak House, Hard Times, Nicholas Nickleby, and their favourite, Oliver Twist, by candlelight and moonlight in Soweto in the sixties.”

As one of those readers pointed out, Dickens’s books were not banned: “Imagine that. We were so happy to read them. The authorities didn’t know what was in these books, how they helped us to be strong, to think we were not forgotten.”

Often those on opposing sides of the struggle were reading the same books, but for different reasons. “At about the same time in the sixties, when Nelson Mandela was reading Carl von Clausewitz’s On War, and Deneys Reitz’s Commando: a Boer Journal of the Boer War, to prepare himself for the move from passive resistance to armed struggle, the South African Defence Force (SADF) was also studying Von Clausewitz’s book, as well as accounts of insurgencies in Malaysia, Kenya, Algeria, Vietnam, Cyprus, and China.”

Dick said that often the same books inspired South Africa’s arch-enemies differently about revolution, counter-revolution, and liberation. “They were recommended, circulated, and read widely in their organisations.”

Dick recalled how Ezekiel Mphahlele had pointed out that readers in the fifties and sixties townships could blend effortlessly themes of liberation and love. “They read William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Maxim Gorky, and Edgar Allan Poe, mostly for their ‘robust characters’, ‘robust humour’, and ‘paths and suffering’ that mirrored the social set-up in South Africa. Schoolboys in Sophiatown read Shakespeare because he was ‘sexy’. Sweethearts whispered speeches from Romeo and Juliet to each other — ‘and not the obvious ones either’.”

However, Julius Caesar was the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays, thanks to its blend of great speeches, revolution and bloodshed.

White and coloured women factory workers’ reading tastes converged on detective and romantic fiction, which they either borrowed from friends and fellow workers, or bought from railway bookshops and bazaars.

American and British authors such as Peter Cheyney, Mickey Spillane, James Hadley Chase, Zane Grey, and Leslie Charteris, were especially popular among black readers and Afrikaners too.

“It is perhaps unsurprising then to learn from Anne Paton that Alan also read Agatha Christie, James Hadley Chase, and other thriller writers, and that he preferred reading whodunits at night.

“Many black and white South Africans shared these reading tastes. As Drum editor Anthony Sampson put it: ‘the workers of the world were united, at least in their addiction to cheesecake and crime’.

“Black readers did not follow the culture that apartheid had designed for them. Instead, they shared the same reading diet of white South Africans and town dwellers across the world. The life of Shaka and Zulu folk tales did not feature at the top of their reading lists.

“For more years than we can tell, rich and poor, black and white, conservative and liberal South Africans have read and enjoyed cross-over authors such as Reitz, Paton, Pringle, Dickens, Shakespeare and many others. In spite of governments and the elite segregating our reading cultures in the past, and even when we read the same books differently, we were probably on the same page more often than we may think.”

•The Hidden History of South Africa’s Book and Reading Culture by Archie L. Dick is published by the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

• feature1@witness.co.za

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