In 2009, the literary world grappled with a controversy whose implication says more about our humanity than a book marketing mischief. At the centre of it all is ‘Liar’ a psychological thriller set in New York City told from the point of a ‘compulsive liar.’ The main character is a ‘short haired’ biracial girl called Micah and the cover was supposed to reflect that. Or it should reflect just that. But the American publishers of the novel, for reasons best known to them, instead presented Micah on cover of their edition as white ‘long haired’ blonde. The author Justine Larbalestier protested and questioned her publishers’ motive for the ‘whitewash’, asking: “are the big publishing houses really only in the business of selling books to white people?”
Beyond this controversy one can see the argument on reading culture or its decline. But how can there be a decline where obviously there is nothing? Reading is the gateway to knowledge. There will be no learning without reading. And learning is supposed to be life long, wide and critical.
There is a connection between reading and innovation. There is a connection between reading and critical thinking. There is a connection between reading and tolerance. There is also a connection between reading and reflection. All these have a relationship with progress and peace.
Rapid and dangerous decline of reading culture is showing staggering impact on all aspects of life; more education less knowledge. We are now dealing with the frightening reality of even teachers’ dazzling display of ignorance.
Blame always goes to the economy which pushed majority to life at the level of destitution; the priority of a destitute is survival. Just to stay alive – nothing else.
Often the blame shifts to social media. While it is true that social media may have impact on learning, it is not entirely right to blame it for what does not exist. Even before the advent of social media, reading culture was dying.
Because reading culture had declined, even the few bookstores around illustrate desperation of life these days. Many bookstores are full of motivational books; often with titles as dubious as promising miraculous change of fortune. In the squalor of abject poverty, a promise of prosperity is more than a promise. It is an achievement. When electricity supply is erratic and healthcare ridiculously expensive what can be more comforting than a book titled ‘How to be a millionaire’? Yes, a millionaire who can afford a diesel guzzling power generator.
Very important personalities always get hacks worshipping them to get that life-changing opportunity to write their glowing biography. Such biographies, glossy and bulky as they are, can pass for a written form of praising singing. No one reads such books. But they dominate bookshelves, often with the best portrait of the big man in his best attire on the cover.
Religion is now what one comes face to face with in many stores that call themselves bookshops. All the books share one thing in common; they are ugly, in terms of both form and content. Quality books are expensive, and may not sell. Bread is the priority of those who live below poverty line.
Because people are increasingly not interested in reading, level of curiosity is at an abysmal point. When people can no longer discover things for themselves, they cede decision on so many important things to others.
Some may assume the blame of this quagmire should be put squarely somewhere. The blame game will not work in handling personal development.
Commitment to knowledge and learning makes reading important for prosperity. In 2013 China was top with 440,000 published books, followed by the US, the UK, Russia and Germany. This says everything about the connection between reading, knowledge, innovation and economic prosperity.
Although plagiarism is purely a display of gross dishonesty, but some have been linking it to decline of reading, which leads to outright stealing of someone’s thought. These days plagiarism is so rampant that those indulging in it are oblivious to its hideousness. Even on the literary front, many writers, at various times were caught stealing from others.
The vitality of reading has been to some extent reduced to an exercise aimed at passing an examination to gain a certificate. Although this is very important in the acquisition of knowledge, but for so many it restricts the whole essence of reading and its relevance to life. As the great French writer Gustave Flaubert said, “Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read to live.”
Mr Sanusi is Abuja-based writer and former journalist at the BBC