Business & Economy

The Power of Reading

  • PublishedOctober 16, 2011

The Power of Reading. One of the greatest satisfactions of producing African Business is when we receive a letter from someone in Africa commenting about a story or a feature that may have appeared in the magazine several months ago.

The writer of the letter usually also outlines the often tortuous route by which the magazine finally reached him or her. We are aware that our readership is 20 times or more compared to our paid sales and that issues are passed from hand to hand and often across considerable distances.

This is a clear indication of the hunger to read in Africa – the satisfaction of which is often frustrated by the high cost of magazines and books and the difficulty of access. The side-walks of most cities are clogged by vendors with their displays of sometimes tattered copies of magazines, many of which are, alas, foreign publications aimed at markets that are as far removed from Africa as the moon is from the earth. Their attractiveness is their cheapness, since these publications are remainders dumped wherever they will be accepted.

Although over the last decade there has been a boom in the number of African magazines and newspapers, including pan-African publications like ours, appearing in various outlets and on the streets, African content in the reading material available is still very scanty.

This is a particularly noticeable in the novels and non-fiction books generally available. South Africa, and Kenya to some extent, apart you will be hard put to it to find novels and non-fiction by African authors. You stand a much better chance of locating these in Britain, France, the US or Germany. African authors such as Ben Okri or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, lionised and very well read in the West, hardly raise a flicker of interest among the general public in most of Africa. The annual Caine Prize for African Writing, a substantial sum, generates a wealth of brilliant short stories, often from people who have never been published in print form before. Yet it remains virtually unknown except to the literati in Africa.

Despite the hunger to read among the educated, Africa has by far the smallest proportion of people who read for pleasure of all the regions. Also, by far the largest proportion of those that do read seem to prefer the works of non-Africans to those of Africans. This runs diametrically counter to the trend virtually everywhere else, where local writers, writing on local themes, are overwhelmingly preferred over foreign writers.

Why is this so? Why do we produce so little literature when we have so many stories to tell, so many epic themes to explore? Where are our Dickens, our Tolstoys, our Rushdies, our Camus? Why are we not producing the best-selling histories or biographies that cram bookshelves elsewhere? Why are we not scattering flowers in the path of our poets as the Indians do? Why are we not building statues to our great writers as the Germans and Russians do?

The love of reading is far more important in freeing the mind, shaping thought, accumulating wisdom and unleashing the creative forces of a people than all the technical education in the world. “To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries,” writes the British philosopher AC Grayling.

I believe this deficit in the habit of reading for pleasure can be laid at the door of an education system, dating back to colonial times, which saw its purpose merely in turning out people who could read, write and add up and therefore become no more than functionaries in the political and economic systems. Since then there has been little or no campaign to instil a love of reading in the general populace.

It is now high time that the African is released to explore his full potential and the quickest and least expensive way to do this, as other nations have proved, is to inculcate an insatiable desire to read and to provide sufficient material to feed this desire. We should see a roll-out of libraries across the continent; governments should support and subsidise publishers of African works and the media must treat writers and thinkers like the heroes they are and place them on pedestals. After all, books and the writers of books do what nothing else can – they free and empower the mind.

Written By
Anver Versi

Award-winning journalist Anver Versi is the editor of New African magazine. He was born in Kenya and is currently based in London, UK.

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