Sunday, 8 May 2016

In search of a reading culture

Image from here

It's often struck me that books are not part of the fabric of everyday life in South Africa. You're unlikely to see books occupying people as they wait in queues or for taxis or snuck under the tables during lectures or resting on restaurant tables. Phones on the other hand, are everywhere, all levels of society equally obsessed and constantly connected. On a functional level, magazines and newspapers are read, but it is not often that one sees someone lost in a book for the pure, simple enjoyment and escape it offers.

Reading for pleasure is just not a priority, both in homes and in the classroom. It gets drowned out by more desperate, immediate things like focusing on the mechanical ability to read rather than wanting to read for enjoyment. Most homes are not filled with books and sadly, the same can be said for most schools too (read an old post about this here). As a result the culture of reading doesn't develop, which has far reaching implications for education. In a paper on implementing a communal reading project at the University of Johannesburg, Janse Van Vuuren describes the typical first year student:
"A high percentage of these learners are from very poor environments where buying books is not an option with the result that they grew up without the benefit of access to books. Many of these young people who are currently enrolled at universities are battling to overcome the disadvantage of growing up without books and an established reading culture. Academic staff at South African universities increasingly comments on the fact that students lack sound reading and writing skills."
That culture is so important, but not acknowledged. Students wonder why bother to read the book when one can just as well watch the movie, missing the point entirely. And so the cycle continues because books are so absent, so missing; considered relics that belong into some other world and have no relevance for the rhythms of daily life. So I was incredibly happy when I came across this heartwarming story of, Philani Dladla,  a homeless man who sells books on the streets of Johannesburg to make a living. On my average drive to work, each time I stop at an intersection I get offered phone chargers, seasonal fruit, plastic coat hangers, and outstretched hands cupped around the empty nothingness of desperation. I am even offered the opportunity to have my windscreen cleaned for some loose change while I wait for the green light. Depending on where you drive in town, you can probably buy anything through your car window.

But books are absent from that picture.

They're not part of the economics of survival. They're not a feature of the vibrant informal pavement trade. Yet, here is the story of a man who lives hand-to-mouth, who takes his stack of books to grubby city intersections around Johannesburg and peddles reviews and books through car windows. A simple act of survival with stories as his tools, that suddenly becomes so much more...


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