In the past, reading was a hunting ground for priests and sheiks. These people read for divine inspiration, for refuting heretic dogmas and in order to appease the Creator.
Not able to read, the masses listened and obeyed. Books were sacred because writing itself was a divine gift bestowed on those who served the deity. Then came along Gutenberg with his movable printing machine! Priests and sheiks lost the readership monopoly. The clergy were not happy with the new invention. So they told their flock not to read this book and not to print that treatise.
With the industrial revolution, books were mass produced. The clergy had to concede defeat. Reading was open to the public. And to add insult to injury (as far as the clergy were concerned) libraries were opened everywhere. Writing and reading, which had before a divine origin, lost their mystique and became accessible to profane hands and eyes.
It is said that we Eritreans are not a reading people. We prefer to see and listen. This means that we like to listen to the radio and watch television more than read books or the newspaper. One obvious reason for this can be illiteracy. But even those of us who can read not only in our own language but in other languages are not given to reading.
‘Don’t read, talk!’ is what your friends say to you in a café or a snack bar. They want you to be with them physically and spiritually. If someone is reading, that person is in the clouds, and it is the duty of friends to bring him/her down to the ground.
I know a bibliophile when I see one. I once lent an acquaintance a book for a week.
“Are you enjoying the book?” I asked him on the phone.
“Yes. Thank you. I am on page 101, and I will give you the book when I finish reading it,” he said.
A genuine reader wouldn’t say that. He was simply faking it.
Some could not fake it for a long time. They implode through excess of snobbism.
“Which is the most interesting book that you have read in your life?”
“Certainly, it is Asmara’s Telephone Directory,”
But reading is a habit. It becomes second nature. There are people who grow up reading books and when they are left alone without a book to fix their eyes on, they literally panic.
In our culture, though, it is very rare to see bus passengers reading during their commute. Few people are seen reading in the doctor’s waiting room. I do wish they had good books or magazines in such places.
How about libraries? Before independence, according to one librarian, most of the readers who visited public libraries were jobless people, and some were eventual mental cases. The sane were not regular ‘clients’ according to the librarian.
It seems Eritreans have lost the appetite for reading during the Derg time when the public was expected to read Marx and reply to questions in ‘awareness raising’ meetings. In those days, every book, including fiction, was permeated with communist doctrine and one was supposed to read it and like it.
On the other hand, during the struggle days reading became a kind of culture in the field among combatants. Imagine writing and reading in your own language and in your own culture. Prizes were awarded for best writers and translators in the lazybones here — that one doesn’t need a sofa or a smart phone to be able to read. The avid reader can read between battles and within canon’s range!
There are combatants who left for the field with little formal education and who at present can silence U n i v e r s i t y p r o f e s s o r s in seconds. And there are those who had obtained their degree thirty or forty years back from such and such university and have never since read a single book to improve themselves. While the former deserve a university degree for the efforts they made, the latter should be despoiled of their academic honors for allowing darkness to envelop their minds.
Again I say that reading is a habit and should be learned quite young. Here, the parents have a very big responsibility. A child who grows up without consecrating a few hours for reading at home soon develops aversion to books and will be heading towards the dark tunnel where eyes and hearts are blinded and conceited whisperings of self are interpreted as knowledge.
What is, therefore, the best way to develop the culture of reading in a field, and, as a result, the habit or reading caught on and everywhere behind enemy lines and in various tranches the fighters kept on reading. There is a big lesson to be learned for the given society?
In the first place, parents should themselves become an example. They should buy bookshelves and show some respect to books. If, for example, a father is overheard by his children complaining about the price of a book while spending 2000 Nfa on a sheep, what do you think the children will think?
Next, the number of public libraries should increase annually along with the formation of book clubs at school level. There should be book reviews in newspapers and panel discussions in radio and television.
Furthermore, people should take the initiative to write stories for children in simple language. A child can learn to appreciate books only if the subject interests him/her and the language is simple and readable. That’s how you make people learn to read and eventually to love books.
A while back I visited a friend, who thought books had purposes other than to be opened and read. To make matters worse, he lived with his otherwise illiterate mother. I had my dinner with the family and I was asked to spend the night, which I accepted.
“Do you have some interesting books to read for the night?” I asked preparing myself for any eventuality.
“I have some encyclopedia,” he said.
“You like reading the encyclopedia,” I asked.
“Well, you see, this one here I use to prop up or support the old family wardrobe,” he said in a casual manner.
“What about this one?” I inquired pointing to one lying on the bed.
“I use that one to bolster the pillow,” he replied.
I saw another one under the bed, probably used as a footstool, but preferred to keep silent.
I’m sure his mother went ahead and burned the whole set of Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z to brew her coffee. It seems that in this way both mother and son got more light (and warmth) from the books by burning them than by reading them.
I looked around for a bookshelf, in vain. Probably burned with lofty treaties and learned dissertations.
My friend grew up hating books because he was told to read books he little understood or that did not tune with his temperament.
At the moment, during times of crisis, people find themselves faced with lifestyle changes. One of the earliest and most noticeable changes seen during the COVID- 19 lockdown was how we consume the media — and especially how we read. It is important we continue this trend. When we go back to normalcy, we should set aside time to read at least once a week. Before we know it reading will become second nature to us.