We Need to Get Book Mad! Now!

2013-07-16 08:34

Something strange happens in the UK every summer. Not the sudden increase in temperature which leaves white faces tinged pink with heat stroke. Nor the fact that concrete metropolises seem to disembowel themselves of inhabitants as people head in all directions, to find a spot of sunshine to thaw out from the winter’s chill.

The country goes book mad.

Almost every major publication, website, social media platform and commentariat outlet publishes annual summer reading lists. Authors, journalists, politicians, celebrities, sports stars and everyone who’s everyone seem to participate in the ritual of describing what forgotten tome or new discovery they shall be burying themselves in during the holiday season.

Whether this is broadly representative or just a middle/upper class preoccupation, I am not sure, but the distinct impression that this leaves is that at this time of the year, and indeed throughout the rest of the year too, the Brits, all of them, revel in their bookishness.

Reading is a liberating activity. It can allow anyone to engage with ideas and worlds that they may have not otherwise gained access to. Learning about London through fiction, for example, can transport someone trapped in the most parochial of places to the world’s most famous square mile. Reading, unlike anything else, can allow you to live through the words of another and simultaneously live an experience independently, for yourself. Voyeurism of the best kind! And that’s not even considering the power of non-fiction!

A reading culture is something that we should value and inculcate in society.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many people out there who are trying and trying hard at that. They need to be applauded. But when you think of reading and books and book clubs, you’re more likely to think of a bunch of middle aged white women who are titillated by each other’s gossip, ably aided by several bottles of wine, rather that such activities, a meeting of the minds, being associated with a wider and inclusive audience.

(As an aside, I attended one of these book club meetings before, as a joke. I still carry those scars with me today!)

My preoccupation with all these book lists resulted in a discussion at the office about South Africa and our own reading culture – whether one even exists and if it does, why does it seem to not be as widespread as it is elsewhere? All of my colleagues readily accepted that we don’t have such a culture and that if ranked on the continental league tables, Zimbabwe, not us, despite our triumphantilism at being Africa’s best, would come out on top for reading, literacy and the like.

When considering why this may be the case, the reasons seemed to fall into a formal and informal category, as we hypothesized why this may be the case.

Formal reasons ranged from the fact that literacy rates and the quality of education for the majority of our nation’s young people (both the biggest demographic and future consumer group) is so poor that they can’t even read to begin with. Other reasons, linked to education and how the government may be failing, included the fact that we do not have community libraries that are well stocked or readily available and that language access and understanding may also be an issue.

Informal reasons (although by no means less important) included the fact that parents are either absent (because they’re dead or in the work place, in many cases nearing death trying to make ends meet) or have no reading culture instilled in the home. Some even suggested that reading and being academically driven isn’t something we celebrate (recalling this being used by Thabo Mbeki’s detractors) and that in our material-driven world, we celebrate consumerism and all kinds of other less cultured things we do to keep ourselves occupied.

All of these seem to have some truth to them. The reality is probably that our lack of a reading culture is a combination of all these factors.

We need to start getting book mad! The government, and other caregivers, bear a responsibility to ensure that we have the skills to read. And when that happens, the market should surely respond! Children, adults, all of us, need to have access to well-stocked libraries, safe spaces that encourage us to read and expand our horizons, to escape the world for a little and enter those that belong to us and our mist loved characters, to go to a place where it feels good to read and learn.

Transformation of the economy and our society is important. Transformation of the mind is vital. Reading, writing, learning, literacy – these are the ingredients that are crucial to this process.

The Sunday Times/Alan Paton Prize Winner, Redi Tlhabi, wrote a book which was cathartic to her and liberating to so many who read it. In a few pages, through a couple of worlds, an author wields the most dangerous and awe-inspiring weapon: the ability to cajole, to question, to challenge, to reaffirm the human mind.

It is no doubt why then, in other post conflict societies Uganda, or ones where there are deep-seated issues that need challenging, like rape in India, reading and writing is becoming the outlet for a new nation identity building, a new discourse in which we should all be able to participate.

Thus, when the government is criticized, rightfully, for failing children (us) it should not only be looked at as them failing to impart a technical, mechanical skill. They should be indicted for shutting children (us) out from accessing a world that is limited only by the constraints of our own minds. Reading, which is so integral to an education, and which is made easier by the delivery of textbooks for example, must become a national pastime in the same way that South Africans love bemoaning Bafana Bafana’s latest woes.

Reading, and getting more people to read, and write and all those other things, makes moral and economic sense: in a competitive, knowledge-oriented world, we have a duty to skill people to make the most of their chance, for themselves and society more broadly. The more we fail to equip people to participate in this type of world, the more we will suffer for it.

Coming after #Malala Day, the day on which the UN celebrates the cause for global education of children, young girls in particular, this seems apt. The more we read and write and talk and engage, the more, perhaps, our problems can be settled through means other than those involving guns or weapons or hurt.

That may be too optimistic, and maybe even a little naïve, but I think that’s okay. I blame that belief in the human spirit on books. If anything, it makes me believe, even more so, that we need to get book mad. Now.

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