The Nigerian version of the World Book Day was on Thursday March 2. It was marked unnoticeably, no frills, no thrills. In this part of the world, matters of the mind always receive scant attention. Compare this with the hoopla and fanfare with which Valentine’s Day was marked on February 14. It means that our hearts are better than our heads or that we have given our heads to our hearts.
Celebration of the book and of those who make books happen has its origin in Catalonia, Spain, where booksellers chose April 23, 1923 to honour an author, Miguel de Cervantes, who died on that day. In 1995, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) adopted that date as the International Day of the Book.
April 23 is also the anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, one of the world’s leading writers, whose books are read all over the world. So UNESCO observes that day as the world Book Day every year. However, in the United Kingdom and most of its former colonial territories the Book Day is marked on the first Thursday in March. This is to avoid a clash with Easter and school holidays that many countries observe around April 23.
Why are we talking about books in the middle of a recession or compression or depression? Because within the covers of books you can find solutions to most problems. That is the utilitarian value of knowledge buried within the slim or stout volumes of books.
Books have other values apart from profit. They offer pleasure to those who choose to worship at their temple. Francis Bacon, that famous English philosopher and statesman, said that “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man and writing an exact man.” Another philosopher, Horace Mann, said that “a house without books is like a room without windows.” The truth is that whether we read for profit or for pleasure, the reward is unquantifiable. ln our early school life as kids we learn to read, then in our lives as adults we read to learn (something new). So reading by kids or adults is a journey in self-discovery.
Many men in Nigeria today do not read much else apart from their cheque-books. There is nothing wrong with worrying about your bottom-line but reading a book, a good book, can even improve your bottom-line. Many women in Nigeria do not read much else apart from their cook-books. There is nothing wrong with that. But delving into the bowels of other books can drastically improve your culinary life and your other lives. So it is the responsibility of literate parents to help stimulate their children’s appetite for books and their kids will grow up making books their friends.
Reading books sharpens the intellect, expands one’s knowledge and improves the reader’s ability to think, to write well, and to gain confidence. As human beings we have very little control over our affairs. Many other people intersect our lives – friends, enemies, relations, school mates, colleagues – for good or for ill. When things happen to us we react either negatively or positively. Most times we have little or no control at all over what happened.
But there is something we can control: our mind-set. It is our mind-set that determines how we are able to respond to the things that need our response. That mind-set gets better through reading; it gets worse through failure to read. Reading festoons you with knowledge and self-confidence, which in turn expands your span of control over your environment.
That mind-set can be improved in an extraordinary way by reading. Reading expands the options available to you and your capacity to shape events around you.It used to be said of black Americans by white Americans that if there is a secret you don’t want them to know (Black Americans aka known as African Americans) bury it in a book. The remark was regarded by the Blacks as street yabis but it prompted them to take matters of the mind seriously. Without having any empirical evidence we can say that reading is in retreat in Nigeria today. Our children’s results in their secondary, JAMB and NECO examinations are awful especially in English. Many of the children cannot write readable letters and cannot speak acceptable English. It might be because of the influence of the digital age where children spend inordinately long time playing games and looking for friendship and pornographic platforms while some people believe that the struggle to make ends meet is such a big burden that makes reading seems like a distraction. Some others think that the frequent changes in the school curriculum or the low investment in education are the culprits. But whatever we finger as culprits the truth is that if we do not reverse the trend we may become progressively illiterate.
A few years ago, President Goodluck Jonathan launched a Bring Back the Book project and it was attended by such prominent men of the book as Wole Soyinka the Nobel Laureate and Odia Ofeimum of the Poet Lied fame. But everything ended there. It was just festivity without fertility. No book policy emerged and till this day we don’t have a national book policy.
The business of book publishing in this part of the world is undertaken by people who love books and are rich in ideas but who may end up in the poverty dub. Yes, books are now sold online and offline. But go to many bookshops and discover what they sell. Religious books, good. School text books, good. Books for general reading not too good. The book sellers then try to spice up their business with the sale of chewing gum, kola nut, bitter kola, akara and moi-moi, and pure water, just to make ends meet. Go to our public libraries and destroy your sight. They are just like our public toilets – not of much use because they are virtually unusable.
In my journalism life I have had the chance to sample life as an inmate of some of the prisons and I can tell you that our prisons are anti-book facilities. In prisons abroad you can stay there and study for your PhD and become a brand new man when you step out of the prison gate on discharge. In Nigeria, prisons have an immense capacity to harden you. You are not allowed to read anything other than the Bible or the Koran.
I don’t know if the policy was apparently designed as a mental torture mechanism. My friend, Dr. Ola Balogun, writer, singer, dancer, arts collector and jazzist, would never know how much pleasure he gave me when he smuggled a book into Ikoyi prison for me in 1983.
Nor will my other friend, Odia Ofeimun, be able to truly fathom the depth of my joy when he gave me a book at my 40th birthday. I too, love to give book gifts. I brought a book with me to the 50th birthday anniversary of one of my journalist- friends. One of the guests asked me why I was bringing a book to the event. I said “as a gift to the celebrant ” and he said “what sort of gift is that?” His profession? Journalism. I was sorry for him but the celebrant was happy with me.
I was very pleasantly surprised when the Vice President Yemi Osinbajo handed out book gifts to ministers of the Federal Republic last year as new year gifts. Why the surprise? No Nigerian leader does that. They can give you hampers containing biscuits, sugar, milk, tomtom, wine, toilet paper and cake. I was even more enthused by YO’s choice of author, Malcolm Gladswell, the seminal author of the globally acclaimed Tipping Point. In all his books, there are nuggets and nuggets of immeasurable wisdom, that are research-based.
It would be nice to see individuals and companies give book hampers as New Year presents, birthday and wedding presents. At Valentine lovers can improve their love life by giving not only flowers that wither away after a while or perfumes that get exhausted but also a book. That will add something to love the love of books because books can last forever. Perfumes and flowers can’t.
Tourism is becoming a big deal in Nigeria today. Many states are now jumping on to the tourism bandwagon. Can they add also a mini book fair to their offering – books on our culture, proverbs, idioms, dance, ethnic food, fashion and fads? .
When we started Newswatch magazine in 1985 we established and supported Newswatch reading clubs in some secondary schools. The kids were quite as enthusiastic as we were. I believe many companies can help these children by setting aside part of their profit for such a noble purpose. When you read you are doing a deep dive into living well, into discovering a treasure island, into refurbishing your mind and into scaling up your reservoirs of wisdom.Books, particularly good books, give unquantifiable relief to the everyday-ness of life.
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