Very few people would cast doubt on the importance and benefits of reading. Reading enables us to relive other people’s lives, use our power of imagination, go on virtual journeys, and learn about the past. The list is endless. It is a window to the world. It was the ability to read that mostly created the difference between social classes in the olden days. Nowadays, with most people able to read, it is the willingness to read that makes the difference. With oral tradition mostly gone, reading is the way forward.
Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.
Sir Francis Bacon
Do Africans read? This question seem to have dominated the recent African Literary Evening over the weekend. With so many UK based African writers in the hall trying to understand who their target audience were, it was the right time and place to pose that question. Of course, it is always very difficult to generalize on any single issue about a continent and all its people both at home and abroad. It would interesting to find out if anyone has done any scientific survey on this matter. In the absence of this, I will permit to call myself the average African though not sure how closely accurate that could be.
As a teenager, I read a lot and was willing to read most things I could lay my hands on. The favourite in those days were pacesetters, African Writers Series, and of course novels by James Hadley Chase. I can still partly retell the story from Too Cold for Comfort from the Pacesetters novels. Most young boys exchanged James Hadley Chase novels, and you were proud to display that you were reading one. I remember I wanted to read the weekend newspapers back to back. Books seemed to be readily available and the costs didn’t seem exorbitant, though I have to admit I didn’t personally have to think of costs then. Most of the participants seem to have remembered themselves as ardent readers too. This obviously is not surprising as anyone who has bothered to come to spend his or her Saturday evening at a Literary event must have special affinity to books.
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In any case, I have reasons to suspect things are not the way they used to be on the ground. There may be various explanations for this. The popular African series are gone. Economic hardship caused by the Structural Adjustment Programs of the 90s forced people to concentrate only on the life basics. People became more pragmatic and read only books that either offered them salvation and hope like religious literature or books allowed them to dream like the get-rich-quick books. New mobile technology has also meant that mobile phones have replaced books both as the object of pride and source of information.
It is interesting to note that some writers have cleverly tapped into these new developments. A new genre called Christian fiction seem to be one such approach. As Africans become more and more religious, novels that align with these trends may be a good gamble. I read one a while ago called The Small Print by Abimbola Dare, also one of the participants of the Literary Evening. A very humorous contemporary novel that told the kind of story the growing African pentecostal Christians would be happy to read and still a fantastic sell to secularists. Another area that is being tapped into is e-books that can be read on mobile devices. Okadabooks seem to be one company betting on that by creating a mobile phone app to read African books.
Coming back to African writers and their target audience, the question is whether African writers are aiming to be read mostly by Africans or whether they need to widen their net. In that case, the question should to extended to: Are Africans Read? Do African writers want to be tagged in libraries and bookshops as African/Ethnic/Multicultural or do they want to stand in their genres together with other writers from other parts of the world? Do they do anything to make their stories sellable to the wider world or do we need to teach the world to read our stories. The precedents have been created.