By Ray Ekpu
All those who write articles for newspapers and magazines and those who labour in the book’s vineyard have every reason to frown today because our nation’s reading habit is in rapid retreat. If they write and nobody reads what they write, then that is a wasted effort, like pouring water in a leaking basket. It means that the army of non-readers is sprouting like mushrooms. Those are the ones who will become tomorrow’s boys of the street and girls of the night. That is danger waiting for us at the corner. To avert that danger, we must confront this octopus now and kill it dead. That is a task for all of us, governments, the private sector, parents, teachers, editors; indeed, all human beings who are fortunate to be able to read today must stand with those who have chosen to bring back what can be called a reading revolution, a revolution without arms. That is what the book reading clubs conference holding in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, next week is all about.
It doesn’t matter whether you read for pleasure or profit or whether you read fiction, non-fiction, or faction, a concoction of fiction and non-fiction. It doesn’t matter whether you read for the story or the style, the subject, or the author; the important thing is that you read. When you read you gain something in addition to the derivative dignity that comes from reading. Besides, books give those who read them much pleasure, like the unwrapping of a gift. People read at different times of the day.
Some prefer to read early in the day when the birds are singing into the ears of the morning. That way they get double pleasure, the songs of the birds, and the lyrics of the books. They are not distracted. Some people prefer to read at night when their children have gone to bed and the thought of performing magic in the other room is far away. Some read in the bus on a long journey if it is appropriately lit and this eases the tedium of travelling and takes their minds away from thinking of the hoodlums that abduct travellers for ransom.
I saw a Super Falcons girl holding an open book, her eyes fixed on its content as if she wanted to learn the tricks of scoring goals or stopping them. I was thrilled that she wanted to take her mind away, temporarily, from the brutality of the battle ahead and, temporarily, enjoy the company of ideas. Some people read during the day after they have had a frustrating day pounding the streets in search of jobs that aren’t there, some kind of consolation elixir. Some others read after they have just exercised a commanding authority over a huge bowl of eba and afang soup and washed it down with a bottle of beer or soft drink. That beer belly gives them the persona of a seven-month-old pregnant woman.
In today’s world where there are technological devices or hard copy you can read anywhere you want, in the kitchen or toilet, restaurant; you can read when sitting or when lying on a sofa although that is a sleep-inducing pill. Unfortunately, no reading materials are provided on local flights (except business class) in Nigeria. The only one that has an inflight magazine is Ibom Air. But that is where the pleasant story stops. I was on one of Ibom Air’s flights and I wanted to take home its inflight magazine because I was enjoying it. The air hostess vigorously grabbed it from me and said with a large dose of hostility, “you can’t take it away.” I wanted to engage her on a colloquium on inflight magazines because she has no idea that inflight magazines are captured in passenger fares and they are free to take them away but I thought it would be a waste of my breath because that decision is beyond her. Instead of doing an expensive glossy magazine, the airlines can publish a 12-page magazine that passengers can take away without being arrested or molested. That way they would save costs and serve their passengers too.
Most of the hotels provide either Bibles or Korans depending on the faith of the owner or the location of the hotel but reading lamps? No. So how are people expected to read what they have provided? People read for either profit or pleasure or both. Students largely read for profit, to pass their exams, and climb from the ground floor to the upper deck of the educational ladder. That way they can get good grades, good qualifications, good jobs, and live a good life.
People also read to improve their skills at work and master the nuts and bolts of their profession or business. They read because they want to be on top of their game. In any case, apart from hard work, reading is clearly one of the keys to success. Books are capable of opening a huge horizon of hope where there is despair because the solutions to many of the world’s existential problems are buried within book covers. It is within book covers that existential warts and wrinkles can be airbrushed away. The pundit comes from nowhere except the tribe of readers.
Is your reading speed important? Not really. If you can read at a jet speed of 100 words per minute like John F. Kennedy or Bill Clinton, you are good to go. You can read many books in a year. But if you are someone who not only reads but takes note of words that sparkle like diamonds or one who makes markings on the margins of the book, your speed doesn’t matter. What matters is the meat in the meal. What children become in life depends largely on what their parents teach them at home, not just on what teachers teach them at school. Illiterate parents teach their children very little because they themselves know very little. They may be able to give basic living pieces of advice: greet people when you see them; say thank you in appreciation of what you receive; don’t insult your seniors and don’t steal the meat in the pot of soup. Beyond that, they take the children to the church, or mosque, or farm or market.
The child’s world is tragically circumscribed because he is shut out of the treasure hall of books. I didn’t read children’s encyclopedia until I became a parent because my parents didn’t know such a bunch of books existed. Even if they knew they would not have afforded it. So, when I got my own children, I bought and read the entire set because I needed to know if my kids read each of the books in the collection. That helped them to develop a relationship with books, which lasted into adulthood. In a world where considerable misinformation and disinformation is dished out through several ephemeral media forms, a book stands erect as a credible source of information because it takes a lot of time and resources to put it together. Books may not always be perfect but they are less imperfect than other forms of reading materials.
But how do you get your books? Do you buy them or borrow them from your friends? When you buy them, they become a part of your furniture, your accouterment of accomplishment, your imprimatur of civilisation. When you borrow a book from a friend or a relation or a library, return it when the date is due. That way you keep books alive in people’s hands, not idle on your bookshelf. When someone lends you a book, return it after you have read it. Don’t say “Oh! I forgot, Oh! I don’t know where I kept it.” Don’t let the lender have to make the difficult choice of either losing a book or losing a friend. Politics and words go together.
Politics is garnished by great oratory as exemplified by such men as Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello, S. L. Akintola, Emeka Ojukwu, and Chuba Okadigbo, to mention but a few. As kids, we used to go to campaign venues in the 50s and 60s to listen to great oratory from men who had an incomparable gift of the garb. They would tickle our young minds with spellbinding forensic feasts and we lapped it up with great eagerness. Words weaving by politicians used to add something substantial to election campaigns. Today, politicians simply raise people’s hands and say some inanities and make promises that are unfulfillable or that people may not remember. They play with man’s proclivity for amnesia. So, the people who go to campaign venues today, go there because they expect to collect wrappers, singlets, caps, and a few naira. That’s all. So, our politics has lost that adorable forensic tinge. It has therefore acquired an unusual level of frivolity and violence and bullion-vanism.
Books, old or new, are excellent furniture. They serve the dual purpose of ornamentation and utilitarianism. They are priceless furniture as well as vision drivers. Assembling books whether on the shelves or tables in your office or residence as tenants lead to your unheralded immortality because books or the ideas in them are immortal and you are bound to enjoy the gift of derivative immortality.
A few suggestions on how we can launch a reading revolution and allow scarcity to give way to abundance:
One, more public libraries including E-libraries must be established in all states of the federation to improve accessibility to books.
Two, book clubs should be established not just in towns but also in all secondary schools, public and private.
Three, there should be spelling and essay writing competitions and debates in schools with attractive prizes presented.
Four, literate parents must encourage their children to read; they must buy them good books and read with them, where possible. Emilie Buchwald says that “children are made readers on the lap of their parents.”
Five, teachers must encourage their students to read not only prescribed textbooks but also decent novels that can improve their minds.
Six, Governments and companies that donate hampers to people at festive periods must be encouraged to include books in their gift packs.
Seven, book lovers, publishers, and book retailers should donate free books to schools and public libraries from time to time.
Eight, book launches and book signing events should be elaborately covered by the media, and such books should be reviewed on various platforms to draw attention. Book carriers and book dividers should be provided as an incentive for people to buy them.
Nine, unlike clothes, books do not go out of fashion. So, old books can be donated to schools, less privileged individuals, and even sold at “bend-down markets.”
Ten, there should be regular book fairs, exhibitions, and auction sales of books, old and new, in various parts of the country.
Eleven, book companies can do book rentals, trade-ins, gift service, and door-to-door sales to provide an incentive to read.
Twelve, books are generally expensive because books or book inputs are imported at a high exchange rate. Government must do something urgently to revive the three paper factories in Nigeria. No one can improve the reading culture if books are not available at affordable prices.
Thirteen, our businessmen and women must go into the business of producing recycled paper for use by printers. They are light and relatively affordable.
Fourteen, people in the public and private sectors who are in a position to write books should do so. Good books can only be available if they are written by people with knowledge.
Finally, let the revolution begin. The police will not arrest anyone calling for a reading revolution. Buy the books when you can. Let the books sit side by side on your shelves touching and caressing each other but not harming each other. They will not harm each other because they know that they are there for the shelf owner to enjoy their pleasant company. A revolution is not a day’s job but let us start by finding a fig leaf to cover our nakedness, by wagging a finger at illiteracy, and by spreading the bright flame of reading.
- Same content published by The Guardian with the title, “Books’ Conference: An agenda”