I READ, THEREFORE I AM
By Austin Inyang
‘In the beginning was the word …’
– JOHN 1:1(a)
Words matter. Stories matter.
But of course, we all know that already – judging by the way we employ words and stories, especially when we want to hurt, to dispossess and even to kill. We pretend otherwise at the best of times, but in moments of crisis and conflict, we are forcefully reminded that we live in a world, in a country, of competing narratives, where we use words and stories designed (indeed sharpened) to reinforce either our claims of entitlement, or our grievances (when we don’t get what we want).
The instinct to tell – and hear – stories is one that is inbred in us humans from the beginning of time, and the advances we have made in various areas of endeavour – be they technological, artistic or political – have done nothing to dampen this instinct. That’s because this instinct is the very pillar of civilization and holds the key to the wholistic progress of every society. Without it, memory fades and histories are lost entirely (or distorted and replaced by the self-serving narratives of triumphant oppressors and empire-builders, or the ignorant speculations of charlatans). The vacuum left by the absence of words, of stories, of history and of sacred memory – whether in the life of an individual or a community – is the death knell of that individual or community.
Back in the day, these stories were told orally by wise old griots and professional storytellers who were seen as the embodiment of the collective memory of the community, or sometimes by family members around a fire by the light of the moon, just before the family retires for the night in anticipation of yet another new morning and another turn in the never-ending cycle of Time.
With the advent of writing, printing and publishing, and now with the aid of digital and electronic tools, our people not only took our storytelling heritage to new heights, they are now able to share them with people far removed from the socio-cultural milieu from which those stories emanated, to make of these stories what they will (either to find similarities within their own cultural experiences, or to take a mind-broadening dive into a totally new and strange culture). In the process, this availability of one culture’s stories to members of another culture (who, in some cases, do see universal truths in them) has given rise to a global culture, where people are able to see themselves, their history, their current problems and concerns, and indeed their future aspirations in the eyes of The Other. Chinua Achebe’s first novel, Things Fall Apart, is so widely celebrated because – though set in a traditional Igbo community in pre-colonial Africa – it resonated powerfully with readers across the globe (especially in other parts of Africa, as well as Asia, S/America and Oceania, etc.) because it deals with universal themes such as culture shock, economic exploitation and dispossession, issues of arbitrary imposition of one’s religious and cultural values and even language over another, to the point where the ‘other’ begins to lose (or at least question) his sense of self, with devastating consequences.
As important as the ability and willingness to tell stories (OUR stories) in books is the ability to read, understand and imbibe the import of these stories. Someone has said that a mind, once expanded by a new idea or concept, never returns to its original shape. This was all too true in my case. All my life, I’ve been a reader. Once I had learned to read as a child, reading became a compulsion as natural as breathing or eating. This was long before I was told that Readers were Leaders, or that Reading Maketh the Man, or any of the catchphrases we hear so often these days. My life kind of offered a new twist to Descartes’ famous axiom, ‘I think, therefore I am.’
I READ, therefore I am.
I was lucky to have been born to a man who understood the power of words and stories, and harboured an especially high regard for writers who embodied in their craft the beauty of language – and had a library to match. My father, once he discovered my reading appetite, fed it with a vengeance – sometimes in rather unusual ways. In addition to the nursery rhymes we read and tried to memorize in nursery and primary school, he would, on many an evening, pass me a copy of ‘The Ghanaian Daily Chronicle’ (this was back in Kumasi, where I was born and bred) and ask me to read aloud. I didn’t understand a word of it, nor did I understand why anyone would introduce a child of 3 or 4 to such ‘adult’ reading material. When he decided (I think I was 6 going on 7) that I was ready for ‘serious’ literature, guess the book my father started me on? No, not ‘Eze Goes to School,’ or ‘Chike and the River,’ or any of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales. He started me on ‘Homage to Catalonia’ – George Orwell’s rather obscurantist and politically charged account of his experiences during the Spanish Civil War! Needless to say, I found such reading heavy going at that age (even in my adulthood, ‘Homage’ and the other books on my father’s reading list for me are still intense intellectual exercises). But I’m grateful that my father insisted, for some reason, that I eat the ‘meat’of literature early – rather than drink the milk thereof. For that reason, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and their fairytale brethren only became my acquaintances in adulthood; in fact, some I only came to know in some detail through my own children, who are still in their formative years – and whom I’ve decided to let enjoy their fairytales for now. George Orwell and co can wait.
This is why I used to be so baffled whenever I heard concerns being expressed – and alarm being raised – about ‘a dying reading culture’ among our people, and to need to ‘revive’ it.
But of course, I’ve come to realize that this is a grim and pervasive reality in our society today. An even sadder reality, I’ve come to realize, is that, worse than illiteracy (the inability to read or write) is the scourge of ALITERACY (the blatant REFUSAL to read or write). Having lived in this society for nearly all my life, I’m all too aware of the pervasiveness of this malaise (an epidemic, I should call it), its immediate and remote causes, and what a catastrophic impact it is having on us as a people.
Even our so-called leaders are not immune to this epidemic of aliteracy – judging by the quality of thought (or lack thereof) they demonstrate in their utterances or write-ups (ie for those who would be bothered to write at all). For this reason, the possibility that we might someday have as a political leader in this clime – whether a President or Governor, etc – a philosopher-king (a personality who combines depth of thought, clarity of vision and firmness of action in equal measure) is as distant as the Milky Way. Our sorry socio-economic state today offers ample evidence of the consequences of having had such a long succession of mundane and trivial leaders and authority figures.
But that, precisely, is why the quest for the revival of our once-robust reading culture is such an existential one. An illiterate (or rather, aliterate) society is a DEAD one. Like the proverbial minstrel who literally had to sing every evening for his dinner, we must read constantly, widely and wisely, to stay alive. The task of bringing back our reading culture is a task that MUST be done. We are playing a must-win game with our collective destiny.
And thanks to the work of the Network of Book Clubs and Reading Culture Promoters (NBRP) a forward-looking advocacy group composed of book lovers and other individual and corporate stakeholders across Nigeria, that task of revival is already underway. Among the innovative activities the group has slated for the year 2023 is the Lagos Book Walk (#NBRPLagosBookWalk) a multi-stakeholder advocacy event scheduled to hold in Ikeja, the Lagos State capital, on the 27th of April at 9.00 am WAT.
The Walk has the following key objectives:
– To launch Lagos as the Book Club City of 2023;
– To create awareness about reading;
– To motivate discussions towards promoting books and reading;
– To encourage people to join book clubs;
– To encourage book clubs to become more active;
– To drive more recognition and acceptance for more Nigerian writers;
– To make the Nigerian book market more vibrant;
– To open the door for many other book events within successive years;
– To influence the establishment of community libraries; and
– To beam a spotlight on the importance of partner organisations in the Nigerian book ecosystem.
This is a call to action on the part of all stakeholders and lovers of and beneficiaries of the book and the reading enterprise. Please get on board. It is, quite literally, a fight for our very lives and for the sustenance of our culture and civilization.
Inyang, a journalist is of the Publicity sub-Committee for the forthcoming Lagos Book Walk.