If Books Could Kill

Ever tried reading in public, like at a café? The experience is something akin to smoking in a lecture class. It is so awkward. People are simply not used to doing, or seeing, such things. Not in Ethiopia anyway. Cafés are for drinking, eating and smoking. And, like other public places, are also for meeting other people. Anyone who is lonely, or simply not especially expecting company, is always welcome to doodle on their phones or laptops, or simply stare into space. But reading a book will only generate the reaction, “poor man, he doesn’t have a Smartphone”.
What people find strange in public is what they almost never do in private. About a year ago, I met this person who took English Literature in college. She had just graduated. Next, she planned to do her post-graduate degree in a similar course. She had also never read an entire book in her life.
A lot of houses in Ethiopia do have bookshelves, but the wooden contraptions are used less for storing books and more for aesthetic purposes. There will be some books on the shelves, but these tend only to be academic I nature. And my point isn’t about academic books – the ones that people are forced to study to pass grades. But books that people choose to read either for fun or out of interest.
The readership in Ethiopia is very low, even among developing countries. The obvious question to ask here would be: why don’t people read? But the right question is: why is reading held in such low esteem?
Let me invoke a popular character from a TV show called Be’Kenat Mekakel, which runs on the EBS satellite channel. The character (known as ‘Likke’) is what could be considered the ideal bookworm. In appearance, he is weird. His curly hair is combed unattractively to one side and he usually wears the type of clothes I am sure are meant to depict the fact that most people that read a lot don’t care about how they look. He also lives in a ramshackle house, which is to say he isn’t wealthy, but depressingly poor. It is also not very hard to conclude that he doesn’t have a girlfriend, and may even be a virgin. He is most of all presented as a pseudo intellectual – someone who opportunistically revels in the simple fact that it is far easier, and safer, to criticise than it is to create. The Ethiopian people, like the show’s creators, have a similar view of an avid reader.
Of course, it isn’t like we Ethiopians have a lot of successful, famous people, who are also avid readers, to look up to. And who is famous in Ethiopia? It is usually celebrities, rich people (which predominantly comprise athletes) and politicians. Celebrities, of movies and music, are rarely seen as the kind of people who read frequently. Instead, most agree, all they do is watch a lot of movies and listen to a lot of songs. And the Ethiopian upper class is identified not as people that are well-read, but simply as salesmen. I once read a magazine article that stated that Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi, the richest man born in Ethiopia, prefers driving his sports cars than reading books.
On the other hand, the world is full of great people that love to read for pleasure. Winston Churchill, even though a very busy man, aside from his chain-smoking and habitual drinking, was very much a bookworm and world renowned for his clever witticisms. Russia’s Joseph Stalin was rumoured to have read a book a day. And Bill Gates, the richest man on earth, has a massive library in his house, and not only for books about computers.
Is this gap just a product of cultural divide? I don’t think so. There is nothing in our way of life that makes reading seem stranger than in a Western nation. In fact, in the past, when illiteracy was such a problem, someone who read a lot of books was considered a change maker, critical and smart; almost a sage. Even in retrospect, there are such fond memories of past famous book thumpers like Paulos Gnogno.
Emperor Haile Selasie used to be one of the most well-educated, informed people in the country. And even in that time, the Emperor understood the need to have a population that loved to read books. The country didn’t have a lot of writers.
International copyright laws demanded that no one could provide a translation until the author gave his consent. In that way, the number of translated works was going to decrease, so Ethiopia at that time never adopted the law. But this is why I am sure the Emperor (or someone who helped draft the law) loved and respected books. Whatever the reply, anyone doing an Amharic version is nonetheless expected to ask permission from the book’s author. And if the author refused, the translator should mention in the book that the translation occurred without the author’s consent, as a way of respecting the author’s opinion.
Back in high school, there was this kid that, despite showing mental alertness, never got good grades. He never tried to. So I asked him why? He answered it was because he had a Play Station at home. Had I asked the same question 30 or 40 years ago, when TV was rare in Ethiopia, he would have blamed TV. Today, more than ever, there is so much reason not to read for pleasure.
A school principle, at the same high school, ones said at a morning assembly full of students, that white people don’t make movies showing themselves reading books or working hard, only films depicting violence and sex. Though it was a clever remark to make, Western entertainment and art is actually full of subtle lessons as to how the western world became so civilised.
It could be hard telling youth to read for pleasure, especially when they have never seen any of their parents do the same. No one wants to have a child that may grow up to be an introverted poet.
In reality, to those that have endeavoured, uncovered and discovered, few things are as mesmerising as books. To read is to think, and reflect, and understand. It is the only way to be able to look at the world in a different, more honest, manner. It gives us a critical eye; makes us better people. Vladimir Nabokov had put it best: “A good reader has imagination, memory, a dictionary and some artistic sense”.

By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye is a film reviewer whose interests run amok in both directions of print and celluloid/digital storytelling. He can be reached at christian.Tesfaye@yahoo.Com

Published on Aug 09,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 849]



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