Why we are not reading books

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

People are reading less these days, of books that is. In many homes, besides religious books and perhaps required textbooks, it is difficult to find books that are being read for leisure. We should not minimize the devastating effect on a people, of a non-reading culture. People should read. Actually, people do read, it is just not obvious. The reality is that books are competing with many other media for the attention of the populace. We have become afflicted by attention deficit disorders, thanks to the Internet. The Internet has barreled its way into our lives and changed us in mysterious ways. There are no boundaries that the Internet will not breach. It is relentless in taking down physical walls.

Let me concede that there are significant downsides to the increasing globalization of our world. However, if you ask my mother enduring what passes for life in today’s Nigeria, technology has freed her from the tyranny of our leaders’ kleptomania and ineptitude. She has her own cell phone; I can reach her at the first ring, no drama. You don’t want to know what it used to take to reach her before the coming of the cell phones. On the nights when there is no power in her house, she uses her cellphone as a flashlight to find the bathroom. My mother is sure that the white man will soon discover a wireless gadget you will wave around, and voila, there is light – and water. She has spent a lifetime trying to trust the malu droppings ensuing from the mouths of Nigeria’s thieving leaders. Now, she cannot stand their prattle. They have lost credibility.  She hopes that soon, astral travel will be a reality and she won’t have to use Nigeria’s “roads” and be ambushed by policemen and armed robbers, two monstrosities sporting a distinction without a difference.

We are living witnesses to seismic changes in how we now access and process information. The traditional publishing industry is on the ropes, sustained only by the arrogance of those who insist that, books must be written, and that, they will be read if only the populace would get off the shopping, malls and just read. But then everywhere you look, print newspapers are dying, hanging themselves out to die on decaying physical boundaries. Soon there will be children born who will read about a time when the newspaper made a joyful thud on someone’s driveway. The newspaper boy is going the way of the milkman. These days, by the time my newspaper comes I have read most of the news on my iPad or smartphone. I regularly pick up my newspapers from the curb and dump them in the recycling bin. Even the sales coupons have gone digital. Traditional publishing is on the ropes. It won’t be for long.

In the West, publishing houses are remaking themselves, trying hard with some success to reclaim the space that is being threatened by the democratization of publishing – that gift bestowed upon us by the Internet.  Publishing houses are competing with new tools of self expression. People are voting with their feet in the millions and going to the new medium as their primary source of information, education and entertainment. Traditional publishing houses have a lot to be worried about. They have historically depended on the book for their survival. The book is dying a long slow death.

What are the implications of this emerging paradigm shift for black Africa? It is true that for most of Africa, books and newspapers are going to be around for a long time. It is true that new technologies may also exacerbate the economic divide between the haves and the have-nots within and between nations. Writers complain that people do not read as much as they should in Africa. But then, is it true that people do not read? They may not be reading books, but they do read in the cyber-cafés, and in the markets. Everywhere that life allows them to, they read nonstop. They may not read books; they read tons of stuff on their cell-phones, on their laptops, on anything with a screen. Our writers just need to find a way to deliver their ideas creatively using this medium, while at the same time making some money.

Our writers and thinkers stubbornly insist on writing books in Africa where book reading is a luxury beyond many people. Writers are not listening and looking. People are actually reading a lot more than we realize. We should move our ideas to where the people are. There is an intimidating contingent of extremely learned Nigerian youths on Twitter and Facebook. They read the equivalent of a book’s chapter daily, they just don’t realize it. I have seen works on social media that put JP Clark-Bekederomo’s Ibadan to shame. The hunger for reading is still there. We may be looking in the wrong places and blaming the wrong people for what ails us. The other day someone asked my son, “Do you love reading books?” He answered truthfully, “No.” He was asked the wrong question. My son loves reading. Period.