By Ray Ekpu
When book lovers troop into Uyo, Akwa Ibom State next month to hold the first Book Clubs conference in Nigeria, the town would have registered its name in history as a book-loving city.
This journey started on October 17, 2015 when a young man Dr Udeme Nana who teaches Mass Communication at the Akwa Ibom State Polytechnic, Ikot Osurua thought it would be a nice idea to create a community of book readers. He brought out some books from his sizeable collection and spread them on tables at his residence and young persons who always came over to have intellectual communion with him, students, graduates, journalists, lawyers devoured them greedily. Their excitement matched his own and he wrote on his face-book page: “One small step and a generation would move our dream city, Uyo and our dear state, Akwa Ibom.”
That is how Uyo Book Club was born through the pioneering effort of Dr Nana who studied Mass Communication at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and has made the business of book reading his business. Let us give him a storm of applause. He can walk with a winged step. That effort has had a domino effect. It has inspired the establishment of Book Clubs in Ikot Ekpene and Eket and the hope is that the candle will be lit in many more towns in the State. So the decision to hold Nigeria’s first Book Club conference in Uyo is a reward for Nana’s show of enthusiasm for the words hidden within book covers.
Since 2017 the club has held book readings monthly featuring the works of William Shakespeare, John Pepper Clark, Wole Soyinka, Ken Saro Wiwa and Chinua Achebe. They have also hosted Jude Idada, 2019 winner of the Nigeria LNG prize in Children’s Literature, Dr Wale Okediran, Secretary General of the Pan African Writers Association (PAWA) who is also a former National President of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). In November last year, the club had a special colloquium to mark the 82nd birthday anniversary of Architect Victor Attah, former Governor of Akwa Ibom State and a connoisseur of books. This conference will obviously set the town atwitter; it will provide the scaffolding for learning, the antidote to ignorance which is as stern as a place of detention; ignorance, illiteracy and disease are joined at the hip; it will cut their link with the sharpness of a knife through butter; it will feed fuel to the fight against cultism, a phenomenon that has imprisoned the minds of many Akwa Ibom youths.
I attended a reading session at the Uyo Book Club some years ago. I read a portion from a book I edited called Moving in Circles. The book is an anthology of columns written over a-30 year period for several print media by Dan Agbese, Yakubu Mohammed, Soji Akinrinade and me. It was in the process of editing the articles, independently selected by the four men that I noticed that in several aspects of our national life we are simply moving in circles like a yoyo. That was the reason I titled the book, Moving in Circles. We are still, to be frank, moving in circles even today.
Many Nigerians are not friendly to books. Some years ago, I gave a book as a gift to my colleague, Remi Oyo, at her 50th birthday. A fellow journalist asked “what sort of gift is that?” To him I should have given her an expensive lace material or a designer watch or some other expensive articles of ornamentation. I simply looked at him and shook my head in disgust. The consolation for me was that the celebrant appreciated the gift because it was different and one that will not only improve her mind but one that will endure for a long time. The man did not appreciate, as Francis Bacon did, that “reading maketh a full man” (or full woman).
In Uyo there are several bookshops but they sell mainly school text books. It is difficult to find books of general interest. That is a question of economics. Supply goes to where there is demand. Supply supplies only what is demanded. With free and compulsory education in the state, school enrolment has galloped and so has the demand for textbooks. Besides, there are about a dozen tertiary institutions in the state so booksellers stock only what they are sure to sell. There was a week that I was in Uyo and I had exhausted the books I went with. I went round looking for books of general reading and I could not find. The only place I was directed to was a field at the University of Uyo where people brought books to sell to the university community. There I was able to find what tickled the labyrinth of my mind. It was a piece of serendipity. In Lagos you can buy books in traffic where there is a gridlock in addition to buying gala, pure water, shorts, eggs and groundnuts. In the traffic in Uyo, you can buy many things except books because books are not among the goods sold during traffic hold-ups. That says something about the city, but it is not peculiar to Uyo.
In most Nigerian towns and cities there is an undeclared war against books. Most hotels in Nigeria do not provide reading lamps. The rooms look more like a red light district where the faces of the whores are hidden. You can neither read nor write in most Nigerian hotels except you carry, as I do, your reading lamp with you. In most of the hotels there are no bookshops or newspaper stands, something that comes with the territory in Europe or America. It is only in Protea Hotels that I have found books made available for guests to savour. The others think books are a burden to them and might be a burden to their guests.
Do we give hampers full of books at Christmas or New Year? No way. We give only baskets of drinks, milk, biscuits, tea, towels, mugs etc, no books. Do we give books at weddings, burials or birthday anniversaries, for where? We don’t. I was pleasantly surprised when our Vice President Professor Yemi Osinbajo gave Ministers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria books as New Year gifts. That was chic. The more surprising thing for me was his choice of books, books by Malcolm Gladwell, a writer whose books have had a phenomenal influence on ideas. I have no idea if the Ministers read those books but it is obvious that Nigeria has a problem with books today.
In the 50s, 60s and 70s there were public libraries in many towns and cities. That is where young people like me went to borrow books written by such authors as William Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, James Hadley Chase, Robsam Rampa and books in the African writers series written by famous African writers. There were also well known publishers such as Longman, Evans and Heineman. A newspaper like the Daily Times also published books yearly in various areas of our national life. But then our education encouraged reading, comprehension and precise. It encouraged young students to write composition on various subjects. Today, things are different. Students are largely asked to tick options provided in examinations. You can shut your eyes, tick them correctly and pass into a higher level of ignorance in life. Till this day I still remember some of the long Shakespeare passages I memorised from Macbeth and Julius Caesar because it was fun to be like a mini Shakespeare in the making.
When we started Newswatch we founded with the permission of their principals Newswatch Reading Clubs in several secondary schools. Every week we despatched copies of Newswatch to the students for their reading pleasure. In an era where there is a sharp decline in reading and where textese is deployed largely by young people as the language of official communication, a deliberate effort must be made to revive the dying art of reading. Publishers, book sellers, educationists, parents, teachers’ associations, private sector decision makers, book lovers and governments at all levels must show more than a casual interest in books. They must commit to the revival of reading culture.
I hope that the Udom Emmanuel Government will put its weight behind the Uyo Book Club conference and make it a huge success. It stands to reap enormous and unquantifiable benefits in terms of youth empowerment, socialisation, attitudinal reorientation and tourism. It is Horace Mann who said that “a house without books is like a room without windows.” Books are the windows through which we see the world. There are two types of books, the ephemeral and the book for all seasons. Each of them has its uses because as Francis Bacon said “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested.” Do whatever turns you on: taste it, swallow it, chew it and digest it. You will discover that, that effort is not wasted, but that your life is enriched by it.
I can compare book reading to going to heaven in rags but it does appear that many Nigerians prefer to go to hell in embroidery. They don’t read. They don’t want to read. People read for different reasons: To pass examinations, to learn something new, to while away time, to occupy the mind, to gain confidence, to be with it, to have a companion, a friend, a teacher, to have a diversion from reality, to gain relief from distress, to put gloss over rough edges. Whatever is your reason, read. You can only gain, not lose. The book may be a regular book or one that is dubbed by publishers and critics as best sellers. Best-sellerism is the sensation of the book world. If you have it in your hands dwell in the enchanted world of its best-seller-ness. Such books, or indeed books generally, are the eyes that enable you to see, the ears that enable you to hear and the other senses that enable you to feel its impact.
Commit the sin, the forgiveable sin, of being a book enthusiast, an explorer, an adventurer, a tourist. You may borrow or buy a book. It is worth travelling on either route because the reward at the end of the journey is unquantifiable. Some white Americans taunt Black Americans with the cynical view that if you have a secret that you don’t want a Black American to know put it in a book. In the same manner if you do have a secret that you don’t want many young Nigerians to know, hide it in a book. We must all do what we can to change that, because there is information explosion in the world today that can change our lives and our country. But if we do not read, we will never stumble on such information.
The Nigeria LNG prize is the only major prize for authors in Nigeria today. We need more organisations to establish prizes to encourage those who write so that more books of respectable quality will be available for those who want to read. More libraries must spring up with generous lending terms for those who want to borrow books. Governments should establish more E-Libraries so that young people who can’t afford to buy books can still access good books and make reading a virtue. Books open vistas of a flaming ecstasy to those who read them. No book ever grows old. Even old books, when read, smell fresh like green tea. So open that book and read because it will paint for you a canvass of endless possibilities.