Let’s end the myth that blacks don’t read

2011-09-10 10:57

Some of those who try to promote a culture of reading do more bad than good.

They make reading seem like something mysterious, which is accessible to only a few. Worse still, they make the terrible mistake of asking kids to choose between reading and television.

This past week has been National Book Awareness Week and everywhere you turn there are messages that encourage reading.

Instead of focusing on the negatives, their campaign would probably be more successful if it emphasised the pleasures of reading and showed lots of kids and adults actually reading.

We have become a nation of slick campaigns, many of them put up at great expense.

Sometimes you wonder if, over time, these campaigns don’t obscure the original goals.

In many ways, National Book Awareness Week reminds me of National Car Free Day. Both events are promoted with great fanfare and afterwards it’s business as usual until the next campaign.

Sadly, many of the campaign messages around reading inadvertently subvert their own aims by suggesting that reading is accessible only to a few.

There is a history of looking down at ordinary reading material and a glorification of so-called “classic texts”.

The idea of “high culture” has done much to discourage reading because many of the texts available in libraries are wholly alien to the lives of the children asked, or even forced, to read them.

South Africa has succeeded in creating a vibrant publishing industry and many new books written by South Africans are being launched each month.

The success of the Daily Sun and similar tabloids in South Africa has shown that readers will emerge when the appropriate material is made available.

Similarly, Isolezwe and Ilanga continue to draw in readers who would otherwise remain outside of the reading public in South Africa.

In the same way, book publishers need to ask themselves if they are producing the kinds of books that would interest a new segment of the population.

There is no point in force-feeding people a literary diet they have no taste for.

Reading, like commuting, is a matter of everyday habit and it is really what happens during the ordinary period that affects enthusiasm for reading.

In those households where the habit of reading is nurtured early, books become a part of everyday life.In much the same way that we have road-safety signs, there should be a plethora of messages that promote and celebrate reading.

This is where a great deal of our attention should be paid. The public broadcaster could run announcements that promote reading throughout the year.

Of course, books are powerful and reading them expands the horizons of any child or adult. Children who grow up reading books are more likely to do better than those who don’t.

It is not just pleasure that readers derive from books but also significant knowledge. But reading is not accessible only through old-fashioned books.

Today’s kids are growing up reading and writing on mobile pages and online. Like many things in life, there are many ways of arriving at literacy and “the book”.

The literary purists may dismiss reading on the internet but the success of the Kindle and tablets like the iPad show that technology can make reading even more accessible.

The conversations about books and reading on Facebook and Twitter show that the internet is already replacing the traditional classroom.

People who want to promote reading in South Africa must not fall into the trap of glorifying “old-fashioned” reading but accept that even books themselves were once a mysterious technology when they first appeared.

So whether the young generation is reading on a cellphone touch screen, a tablet, a crumpled newspaper or a moth-eaten book, the pleasures of reading do not diminish.

Regardless of the medium, the curious reader will still be transported to the imagined world of the writer.

The sooner we widen the reading choices the more readers we will catch.

So while it has been a great delight to see even celebrities who are not normally associated with reading promoting National Book Week, the truth of the matter is that while it is easy for some to master reading, for others it is a very difficult task.

Teachers and those promoting reading must not make those who struggle to get on with reading feel as if it’s their fault.

National Book Awareness Week is an important initiative because it reminds us that books and reading them opens up a whole new world to readers.

In our country, with its great disparities in wealth, we should never assume that everyone has access to books and that they simply refuse to read them.

We should rather share the joys of reading because it inspires learning like nothing else on Earth.

Hopefully, National Book Week can help put an end to one of the most dangerous and popular myths in the country: that black South Africans don’t read.

No proof is ever furnished by those who make this bold claim, yet it is one of the most stubborn South African myths and is casually repeated whenever books and reading are discussed.

A related myth is the idea that there was once a golden era of reading, and that today’s children would do well to emulate earlier generations.

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