We should be burning to read
When I was about 13, my sister and I fell upon a delicious French expression. It was hors d'oeuvres. We rolled it around our tongues. We explored it and sucked at it and spat it out. Hors d'oeuvres. It was exotic and wild. We had found it in a book, a spy thriller, that we had both recently read.
My sister and I had never had a multi-course meal, let alone a French gourmet meal (hors d'oeuvres is French for food items, largely nibbles, served before the main courses of a meal), but we loved that expression.
There were others. We experienced a quaint delight with the fact that women were called dames in my father's 1940s English thrillers. My brother introduced me to a Native American character in a Louis L'Amour western called Tats-ah-das-ay-go. For weeks my brother and I would roll that name around and talk about the character's exploits. The name's still stuck in my head.
All these things, all these secret delicacies, came from books. Books which I read when I was young and impressionable. Books that ranged from crime thrillers to westerns to romance to Charles Dickens and family sagas. We read all the books in our house and went on to find more wherever we could: from friends and neighbours and teachers and strangers who became friends.
Books are amazing things. I only went overseas for the first time when I was in my 20s, yet in the novels I read I had followed Soviet-era spies down the narrow streets of Munich and had an idea of the wide streets of Moscow. I had ideas about French food, and through Ngugi wa Thiong'o, I knew the ebbs and flows of Kenya's politics. Through the power of a book like No Longer At Ease, Chinua Achebe opened my eyes to the temptations and pitfalls of corruption in Nigeria way before I set my feet down in Lagos.
Books transported me. They had shown me other cultures and ideas. Growing up in a poor, isolated community in rural Hammanskraal, I was far away from New York, Johannesburg or London. Yet books had made me hear the swearing of a New York yellow taxi driver and hear his incessant hooting and hustling.
There is much that is right with South Africa. We have an admirable democracy that is noisy and contested. We have a wonderful and peaceful population. We have great infrastructure. Yet there is something that is lacking here that breaks my heart.
We do not read books. The culture just is not there. I rarely see people reading. We while away our time talking, or playing computer games, or engaged in other things. We rarely read.
I was reminded of this recently when I drove past a young woman reading a novel while waiting for a bus. I nearly caused an accident. It is a sight I have not seen in ages. It should be an everyday sight.
In Every Day is for the Thief, author Teju Cole writes about getting into the equivalent of our minibus taxi in Lagos, and seeing a woman reading a large book.
"I crane my neck to see what is printed on the book cover, and I catch sight of the author's name. What I see makes my heart leap up into my mouth and thrash about like a catfish in a bucket: Michael Ondaatje. One of my favourites. A reader of Ondaatje in these circumstances: it is incongruous," he writes.
Cole is a lover of books, and is taken aback by what the woman is reading because Lagos, like us here, "is a hostile environment for the life of the mind". And so he wishes to speak to the woman, to share thoughts and ideas, but she disembarks, and is gone into the heaving streets of the city.
Books are special. When I was a child, every year during the long December school holidays my friends and I would run out of new books to read. We would have exchanged everything we had, would have read every book twice, and we would be left with nothing new. We longed for a library, but we would keep making new friends until, in a small house somewhere in that village, one fell upon a Jerzy Kosinski or some other author. The celebrated Zimbabwean author Dambudzo Marechera has written about how he used to salvage books from rubbish dumps in the suburbs outside what was then called Salisbury, now Harare. The joy of finding a good read.
I write this because the other day people involved in the education of our children threw away, shredded and burnt books in Limpopo. Some of the books had a tear here, a smudge in printing there. I nearly wept when I read about it. The people we have entrusted with the education of our children are burning books. And we call them teachers and educators.