When book lovers traveled to Uyo, Akwa Ibom state next month to host Nigeria’s first book club conference, the city is said to have made history as a city of love. books.
This journey began on October 17, 2015 when a young man, Dr Udeme Nnana, who teaches mass communication at Akwa Ibom State Polytechnic, Ikot Osurua, thought it would be a good idea to create a community of book readers. He took out some books from his important collection and displayed them on the tables of his residence and the young people who always came to have an intellectual communion with him, students, graduates, journalists, lawyers devoured them greedily. Their enthusiasm matched his and he wrote on his Facebook page: “One small step and a generation would move our dream city, Uyo, and our beloved state, Akwa Ibom.
This is how Uyo Book Club was born through the pioneering efforts of Dr Nnana who studied Mass Communication at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and made book reading his business. Let’s give him a storm of applause. He can walk with a winged step. This effort had a domino effect. This inspired the establishment of book clubs in Ikot Ekpene and Eket and the hope is that the candle will be lit in many other towns across the state. Thus, the decision to hold the first Reading Club of Nigeria conference in Uyo is a reward for Nnana’s enthusiasm for the words hidden in the book covers.
Since 2017, the club has held monthly book readings featuring the works of William Shakespeare, John Pepper Clark, Wole Soyinka, Ken Saro Wiwa and Chinua Achebe. They also welcomed Jude Idada, 2019 winner of the Nigeria LNG Prize for Children’s Literature, Dr Wale Okediran, Secretary General of the Pan African Writers Association (PAWA) and former National President of the Nigerian Authors’ Association (ANA). In November last year, the club held a special symposium to mark the 82nd birthday of architect Victor Attah, former governor of Akwa Ibom state and book lover. This conference will obviously put the city on Twitter; it will provide the scaffolding for learning, the antidote to ignorance which is as severe as a place of detention; ignorance, illiteracy and disease come together at the hip; he will cut their bond with the edge of a knife through the butter; it will fuel the fight against sectarianism, a phenomenon that has imprisoned the minds of many young Akwa Ibom.
I attended a reading session at the Uyo Book Club a few years ago. I read part of a book I edited called Moving in Circles. The book is an anthology of columns written over a period of 30 years for several media printed by Dan Agbese, Yakubu Mohammed, Soji Akinrinade and me. It was while editing the articles, independently selected by the four men, that I noticed that in many aspects of our national life we just go around in circles like a yoyo. That’s why I titled the book, Moving in Circles. To be frank, we are still going in circles even today.
Many Nigerians are not friendly with books. A few years ago, I gave a book as a gift to my colleague, Remi Oyo, on the occasion of his 50th birthday. A journalist colleague asked “what kind of gift is this?” I should have given him expensive lace hardware or a designer watch or other expensive ornamentation. I just 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 it would not only improve her spirit but it would last a long time. The man did not appreciate, like Francis Bacon, that “reading makes a full man” (or a full woman).
In Uyo there are several bookstores but they mainly sell textbooks. It is difficult to find books of general interest. It is a question of economy. Supply goes where there is demand. Providing only provides what is requested. With free and compulsory education in the state, enrollment has soared, as has the demand for textbooks. In addition, there are a dozen higher education institutions in the state, so booksellers only stock what they are sure to sell. I had been in Uyo for a week and I had exhausted the books I went with. I went looking for general reading books and couldn’t find them. The only place I was headed was a field at Uyo University 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 happy coincidence. In Lagos, you can buy books in traffic jams in addition to buying gala, pure water, shorts, eggs, and peanuts. In traffic in Uyo, you can buy a lot of things except books because books are not part of the goods sold during traffic jams. It says a lot about the city, but it’s not unique to Uyo.
In most Nigerian cities there is an undeclared war on books. Most hotels in Nigeria do not provide reading lights. The rooms are more like a red light district where the faces of whores hide. You cannot read or write in most Nigerian hotels unless you, like me, carry your reading light with you. In most hotels there are no bookstores or newsstands, which comes with the territory in Europe or America. It was only in Protea hotels that I found books made available to customers to savor. Others think that books are a burden on them and could be a burden on their guests.
Do we give out baskets full of books at Christmas or New Years? Certainly not. We only donate baskets of drinks, milk, cookies, tea, napkins, mugs etc, no books. Do we donate books at weddings, funerals or birthdays, for where? We don’t. I was pleasantly surprised when our Vice-President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, presented books to ministers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as New Year’s gifts. It was chic. The most surprising thing for me was his choice of books, books by Malcolm Gladwell, a writer whose books had a phenomenal influence on ideas. I have no idea if the ministers have read these books, but obviously Nigeria has a problem with the books today.
In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s there were public libraries in many cities. This is where young people like me went to borrow books written by authors such as William Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, James Hadley Chase, Robsam Rampa and books from 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 publishes books every year in various areas of our national life. But then our education encouraged reading, comprehension and precision. He encouraged young students to write compositions on various subjects. Today things are different. Students are largely invited to tick the options offered in the exams. You can close your eyes, tick them off correctly, and move to the next level of ignorance in life. To this day, I still remember some of the long passages of Shakespeare I memorized from Macbeth and Julius Caesar because it was fun to be like a mini Shakespeare in the making.
When we started Newswatch, with permission from their principals, we founded Newswatch Book Clubs in several high schools. Each week, we sent copies of Newswatch to students for their reading pleasure. In an age where reading is in sharp decline and text is widely used by young people as the official language of communication, a deliberate effort must be made to revive the dying art of reading. Publishers, booksellers, educators, parents, teacher associations, private sector policy makers, book enthusiasts and governments at all levels need to show more than an occasional interest in books. They must commit to renewing the culture of reading.
I hope the government of Udom Emmanuel will put its weight in the Uyo Book Club conference and make it a huge success. It is expected to reap huge and unquantifiable benefits in terms of youth empowerment, socialization, attitude shifting and tourism. It was 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 all-season book. Each of them has its uses because as Francis Bacon said “certain books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and a few to be chewed and digested”. Do whatever turns you on: taste it, swallow it, chew it, and digest it. You will find that this effort is not in vain, but that your life is enriched by it.
I can compare reading books to going to heaven in rags, but it seems 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 exams, to learn something new, to spend time, to occupy the mind, to gain confidence, to be with him, to have a companion, a friend, a teacher, to distract himself from reality, to relieve distress, to put luster on rough edges. Whatever your reason, read on. You can only win, not lose. The book can be a regular book or a book labeled bestselling by editors and reviewers. Best-sellerism is the sensation of the book world. If you have it in your hands, stay in the enchanted world of its bestseller. Such books, or even books in general, are the eyes that let you see, the ears that let you hear, and the other senses that let you feel its impact.
Commit sin, the forgivable sin, of being a book lover, an explorer, an adventurer, a tourist. You can borrow or buy a book. It is worth traveling on either route as the payoff at the end of the trip is not quantifiable. Some white Americans laugh at black Americans with the cynical opinion that if you have a secret you don’t want a black American to know, put it in a book. Likewise, if you have a secret that you don’t want many young Nigerians to know, hide it in a book. We all need to do what we can to change this because there is an explosion of information in the world today that can change our lives and our country. But if we don’t read, we’ll never come across such information.
The Nigeria LNG Prize is today the only grand prize for authors in Nigeria. We need more organizations to set prices to encourage those who write so that more books of respectable quality are available for those who want to read. More libraries must spring up with generous loan terms for those who want to borrow books. Governments should create more electronic libraries so that young people who cannot afford to buy books can still access good books and make reading a virtue. Books open up vistas of fiery ecstasy for those who read them. No book ever gets old. Even old books, when read, smell like green tea. So open this book and read because it will paint you a web of endless possibilities.