Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The importance of a reading culture

A great short piece by Binyavanga Wainaina here on Storymoja.

A reading culture is not one where almost everyone who is reading is reading motivational/self-help guff, management books or religious texts (guess where I'm thinking of?).

A reading culture is one where people are engaging with fiction and quality non-fiction, not feel-good soma that tranquilises the mind into inaction. I'm sorry to say, but if all you read is seven-habits/who ate my cheese yada yada, management/leadership guff or religion, there's little chance that things will change in your life, or that you will be part of any change in the world.

And if you don't know where the 'soma' reference comes from, you're also part of the problem.


Kody 11:46 am  

I will not look up the reference, and I will say without any embarrassment that I have no idea where the 'soma' reference comes from. So Jeremy, do tell....what problem does that make me part of, in your view?

Anonymous,  12:39 pm  

kody, you stole my comment. i dont know what soma is, i'm not gonna look it up, and i'm still going to read and enjoy the binyavanga story! fact i think i'll enjoy it just a little bit more because i'm resisting J's intellectual bs this morning.

Jeremy 12:52 pm  

You people don't get it. People who talk about intellectual bullshit and 'blowing grammar' are a major part of the problem - anti-intellectuals who like to eat and watch tv and feel happy with themselves. You think you are so smug because everything in your received little world fits nice and tidy. You need cold water poured all over you.

Nigeria is not going to change anywhere near as fast as it could because:

1. The elite is deeply alienated from its own culture and deeply afraid of change

2. The education system has collapsed. Kids all over the world really should know about Brave New World, just as they should know about Things Fall Apart, just as they should know about 100 Years of Solitude.

3. In Nigeria, evangelical religion functions as the crystal meth of the people. It stops people demanding for change by brainwashing them that prayer will lead to transformation. It won't. The politricians know this, which is why they support the pastors so much. Religion pacifies people most of the time. Ideal if you are part of the elite and you want the status-quo.

4. Self-help books are part of the drug. Management/leadership books also. They are illusory. They help not.

If people don't read fiction and quality non-fiction, the danger is that of falling into a self-referential universe. That's the trap many Nigerians have fallen into.

They take their soma, and claim they are the happiest people on the planet...

Sandrine 1:44 pm  

Hi Jeremy,

I really liked that article.I also put the site on my links.My parents always fostered the love of reading in me since I was very little.I love to read (and not self help books ; ).When I went to France recently, I was able to read everyday and it was amazing.My mother has books all over the house and I was like a kid in a candy store.However in Miami I do not have time to read every day.I have several kids and I work full time,most of the time my schedule is crazy.I agree with you that reading is very important in a culture but I would not put down people who don't read. I believe most people do not read as often as they watch TV because they are either tired or they do not have the time. Also reading requires some concentration and isolation that is not always easy to find.
At school (elementary) here it is required now to be read (kindergarten) or to read at least 30 minutes a day.Also they have a reading program where the kids have to read books and get quizzed on them, then they get points.Of course at this age, they are very competitive and everybody tries to read more than the others to have more points.My son read about 180 books last year this way. This year he even reads when it is not required.I think it is the way to start, with the children.
Take care.


Controversial Anon 1:45 pm  

Most Nigerians read the Bible and the Koran. Are those two books not fictitious enough for you? :-)

You have a funny way of over elaborating everything, maybe it's because that way, you are better able to avoid the 'point'. Kody and anonymous were very specific, they do not know what 'soma' is nor do they care, they were not making a case against your post in it's entirety, their case is very specific and it was against that sentence.

I shall leave it there.

Jaycee 2:13 pm  

Crazily enough, I love the honest statement of controversial anonymous.

But then again, I support your statement that rather than restricting oneself to motivational works, I dare say that reading a combination of sorts is a good thing. Restricting oneself to a particular genre or style is placing oneself in a box.

But a combination of fiction, non-fiction, management, seven habits/"who-ate-my-cheese" sagas, leadership guff, Religion...and a whole bunch of books causes the mind to be liberated, more knowledgeable, active, and prone to change the world.

A wide reader is versatile, energetic, and enthusiastic.

Sandrine 2:32 pm  

to Kody and Anonymous:
"Soma is a muscle relaxer that works by blocking pain sensations between the nerves and the brain."
I didn't know it either, I had to look it up.I thought soma meant body (as in psychosomatic).
Take care.

Mike,  2:40 pm  

'And if you don't know where the 'soma' reference comes from, you're also part of the problem.'

What an utterly arrogant and unecessary remark. Your attempt at justification in the comments is feeble at best.

Jeremy 2:57 pm  

The Soma reference is specifically to Huxley's Brave New World. See the bottom para of this link:

Every child should have to read Brave New World, as well as Orwell's 1984, as well as all the other classics from around the world.

Without this, people will not have sufficient resources to recognise Soma in all its contemporary guises.

Mike: my arrogance is tactical. One usually finds arrogance amongst the ignorati. One usually finds a sympathetic listening-ear-we-can-help from liberal do-gooders. Sometimes its necessary to say to those who can't be bothered to read anymore: stop acting so fucking ignorant..

Sandrine 3:05 pm  


I read 1984 a long time ago but did not remember that word.Does that make me ignorant? Goodness, chill a little! I don't believe "stop acting so fucking ignorant" will entice anybody to read.Remember "on n'attrape pas les mouches avec du vinaigre". I don't have to translate,right? Everybody educated should speak different languages.Right back at you. ;- )


Jeremy 3:16 pm  

Sandrine, the soma ref comes from Brave New World not 1984.

Meanwhile, there's a reality-illusion gap at work in Nigeria that really needs to be addressed. Youngsters graduating from Nigerian universities are by and large unemployable. Ask any business owner here and they'll agree. There are serious issues with the collapse of education standards in Nigeria. No one seems to take the issue seriously. One can read all the self-help etc books one likes and still end up knowing nothing about anything....

If this situation continues without radical intervention then Nigeria will no way be close to having human resource en masse to enable global competitive advantage.

Vision 2020 and other such grandiose ideas will come to nothing unless reality is engaged with at some point soon...

Kody 3:20 pm  

I found your last sentence deeply offensive.

Your statement that one is part of the problem for not knowing a word from a book you happen to recall is smug, pompous and frankly stupid.

Its like pointing to your shirt logo because you are wearing Polo - lacking class.

Am not going to comment about the rest of the post - who would disagree that fostering a reading culture is a good thing.

Jeremy 3:24 pm  

Kody: Many people would agree that fostering a reading culture is a good thing. But how many people would actually do anything about it?

In Nigeria, there are lots of people who say we should do this, the govt should do that...

But when it comes to actually getting any support from anyone about rolling up shirt sleeves and doing something - silence.

The reality is, if you are putting on a sports event, or a music event, the corporate sponsorship will come.

Anything to do with education and literacy: forget about it.

Homeless 3:33 pm  

mmph! fake homeless me. may the devil have it

gungun 3:39 pm  

but we are the happiest people on the planet

Sandrine 3:41 pm  


OK I got your point. I did read both books by the way, in French and a long time ago. I went too fast when I wrote my answer.I agree with you on the issue and I am the first one to champion reading and education but I do not agree with you on the way you address it. I guess that's because I am one of those "liberal do-gooders"! I understand that you are upset by the situation and that there is an urgency to it but in my experience insulting people or putting them down does not bring results. If you tell me that I'm fucking stupid because I don't know a certain book, it will not make me read it.However if you tell me what amazing experience you had reading it or if you let me know about the author, it will.That's how I read "The sweetest dream" from Doris Lessing. Then again maybe that's just me.
Take care.


Homeless 4:01 pm  

frankly speaking, I hate those "motivational/self-help guff, management books or religious" books although I may not be smart enough to author one. In the same vein, no matter how vain this may sound, I cannot stand Machiavelli's best known book "The Prince" or similar books that may try try to convince. I am just me. Me, someone who loves Jesus as well as the other prophets (especially their impeccable moral standards) but without their individual or collective churches or whatever called.

Kody 4:32 pm  

I have to say, I held out hope for quality books when Nu Metro began operations, only to get there and see the same old motivational nonsense. Also, Sidney Sheldon and Mills & Boons sadly do a roaring trade in Nigeria.

Maybe a way forward is for those of us who do read, and have a vast amount of books should find others in our area and get a database going online. If anyone wants to borrow a book, they can come pick it free of charge. Worrying about whether it will be returned or should be paid for should not be of concern. What's the alternative? Leaving them on bookshelves to gather dust (as mine do) Eventually, a sponsor will take up the cause.

Publishers like yourselves also need greater visibility.

Controversial Anon 4:34 pm  

Nothing you are saying here is unique to Nigeria, it's very easy to get carried away and forget that this is the situation in most parts of the world.

There are people in different parts of the world who go about promoting their own views on education and national progress.

In your country, there is an intelligent man called Richard Dawkins who barks everyday about falling standards in education and the thought process, the dumbing down of education and science, the lack of funding for what he rightly views as essential if the UK must remain competitive with the rest of the developed world. In your country, the largest selling newspaper is the dumbest one - The Sun. In your country, more people watch Big Brother than any educative programme on TV, in your country even people who do not believe in religion believe in and read books on psychics, conjurers, astrology, new age Mesmers, Atkins diet, weightwatchers, Richard and Judy, David Beckham, and all such nonsense.

Before Carl Sagan died, he spent most of his years trying to get Americans to appreciate science, to let go of dogma and superstition, he was of the opinion that education standards had fallen, he was not wrong, neither is Dawkins, nor yourself Jeremy. And there are such people in every country saying exactly the same. But that is not what is wrong with Nigeria, make no mistake about it.

There are more 'dumb' people than intelligent people in most countries, nothing wrong with having a lot of dumb people, its normal. the problem with Nigeria is that the dumb people are at the top. Getting every child to read Orwell, Hobbes or Homer is not what makes a country great or rich, I dare ask why are you here if you know so much? Why aren't you the British Prime Minister? or the Foreign Secretary? Does it mean you have failed? Or just that Milliband read more classics than you did? of course not.

You have a PhD, but does Abramovich have one? Did Einstein have one? I find that you are guilty of being too educated, to the extent that you are unable to see the very essence of good education. Good education does not put you in a box, nor make rules for you, neither does it teach you that your ways is the only way, that you must 'read the classics' (no you fucking don't), that is not the mindset you come away with after proper education.

Your bias obviously is literature, someone else could make a valid argument about how fiction is bullshit and that people must instead read more of science, history, and non-fiction. There are no rules to intelligence and no one exclusive path to achieving it.

We know that our country is rubbish but you must never make the mistake of believing that somehow you can be our messiah, or that you posses the magic wand, you'll find yourself wrong on that.

Jeremy 4:37 pm  

Kody and Sandrine - I take your points. Definitely my shakara is not the most persuasive strategy. Im speaking out of absolute frustration.

One of these days I'm going to think sod it - and I'll name names of all the scumbag corporate affairs people who make promises they can't keep, make all kinds of side money their bosses don't know about and are generally philistines just full of shite....

Kody 4:40 pm  

I have to say, I held out hope for quality books when Nu Metro began operations, only to get there and see the same old motivational nonsense. Also, Sidney Sheldon and Mills & Boons sadly do a roaring trade in Nigeria.

Maybe a way forward is for those of us who do read, and have a vast amount of books should find others in our area and get a database going online. If anyone wants to borrow a book, they can come pick it free of charge. Worrying about whether it will be returned or should be paid for should not be of concern. What's the alternative? Leaving them on bookshelves to gather dust (as mine do) Eventually, a sponsor will take up the cause.

Publishers like yourselves also need greater visibility.

Anonymous,  4:43 pm  

Jeremy, I have to agree with your comments 101%. Reading culture in Nigeria is dead and I am sure you and Bibi are probably in a good position to know about the status of reading culture in the country and it must be frustrating. Alas! you don't have to be insulting to make your points. I understand the need to be polemical, but easy does it. The essay BW is excellent. It should be more widely published. I really enjoyed it. Thanks for always bringing these things to our attention.

Anonymous,  4:59 pm  

Controversial anon, touche! Your last comment took the words right out of my mouth...

half past crazy,  5:15 pm  

Good God you're in a pissy mood today! You even managed to irritate the normally sanguine Sandrine.

Na wa o, you dis guy. Got up on the wrong side of the bed?

Anonymous,  5:17 pm  

Well said Controversial Anon, but dont be dissing works!

Jeremy 5:24 pm  

Its been a tough week and I don't own a punch bag. Every now and again you have these 'God help Nigeria' moments and you have to resort to swearing. Or at least I do. I blame my mother. She taught me all the swear words I know from an early age.

Meanwhile, Sandrine is ever gracious with me, no matter my foul moods.

I imagine she has a sexy francophone accent and a seductive manner. In my dreams she lives in an apartment in some trendy arrondisment with a birdcage lift. She also smokes Gitanes out of a holder and has an elegant Persian cat called Florence which of course she pronounces in the French way.

She spends her evenings listening to Edith Piaf and Serge Gainsbourg...

half past crazy,  5:27 pm  

"I imagine she has a sexy francophone accent and a seductive manner."

I imagine her husband has a gun. A loaded gun. And an itchy finger on the trigger.


Kody 7:26 pm  

Group hug everyone........ I have been getting frustrated with Nigeria as well lately. I know how you are feeling. I think you should invest in a punch bag though.

I just go round the house saying fxxx, pxxx, sxxt till it passes !!!!!!

Sandrine 7:31 pm  


LOL.I am glad you're in a funnier mood.
Take care.


'derin,  8:50 pm  

Oh shit, i'm late on this one. Been a long (and quite good, i must say) day.

@contranon, I HATE YOU!! And I will admit, my hatred is borne out of nothing but pure jealousy. Try as i may, I can never come up with comments as eloquent as yours. You took the bloody words out of my, ahem, fingers. Whatchusay, i give you my email address, you mail me your comments and i pass them off as mine? I'll even start every comment with "as contranon would say....."

Anonymous,  11:13 pm  

CA is dead right. Jeremy is over-educated. It's a gift and a curse. But please don't mock the man! He has his good moments........

Anonymous,  11:40 pm  

In the developed world, they are not reading anymore. Like J, many of them just go to Wikipedia. Information at your fingertips. Bubble gum TV that you do not have to think about. Too much shit going on in the world. Lack of time to read. Have to go make that money. At this rate not many will know the "fault line" with this way of life.

Oh shit, China, India and Brazil are catching up. Let's have reading clubs in schools, teach them about our heritage, increase the number of scientists, engineerers etc. Perhaps, there is hope for a new generation to raise awareness of the previous "fault line"

@ controversial anon: "the problem with Nigeria is that the dumb people are at the top". I am a recent returnee and that statement hits the nail on the head. That is the problem with Nigeria. I would love to give examples...

Jeremy, you too are guilty of being a Notting Hill liberal. In naija speak - An "atutuno" . Top down instead of bottom up approach. Perhaps, you and Bibi need to re-strategise your concept of reading in Nigeria. The orientation gap is too much for the vast majority of Nigerians. Self help, religious, romance etc will sell for now due to socio-economic/cultural issues but have books/articles where the subtext is something else.

Recently, I am thinking what is up with this oyinbo naija man? Always negative. Just giving solutions but not implementing. Do not wait for ANYONE. JUST DO IT.

PS- if you are fustrated take a fucking holiday or relocate.

I beg, me too I don tire. My colleagues have me wondering "is them that is mad or me?" Maybe I should take my own advice?

Anonymous,  12:08 am  

11.40pm Anon. Only if you know the number of things and projects that jeremy is actually involved in, you'll be amazed. He is a canterkorous old git even in real life, but he is committed and he is a man of action. He has a wonderful combination of the philosophical and the activism. I like that about him. But he swears too much and is too hot tempered.

Waffarian 1:33 am  

Last to arrive as usual, hence I have the wonderful task of being the psychologist here.

Jeremy: You are frustrated and irritated...I understand you. Do what I do, get fucking drunk and leave the battle for another day. Fuck it.

@everybody: Ofcourse its a problem and I share the anxiety of many others that have commented.

There are many people that will never open a book, thats just the way it is. I know many people that would rather read adverts in newspapers than open a book...and thats international.

However, as Sandrine advised, getting them young is the way to go. Many people have said many good need to repeat.

Another irritating fact(this has nothing to do with the above topic) is the so called Nigerian "literati". I believe many have been allowed to fool themselves for too long that even they begin to believe their own shit.I can not boast of having met many but anybody that has not heard of Samuel Beckett...surely, that can't be right? I am just saying....

Lost at the Other End of the World 5:10 am  

Except that I finally realized that Jeremy cannot help his Britishness: "Dominos nobiscum.................Let us gather at the alter of the classics and worship the cannon.

But Jeremy, think of the deligitimizing sensibility of your 'soma' comment. "if you don't know where the 'soma' reference comes from, you're also part of the problem." A classic way of delimiting the boundaries of legitimate knowledge production. This monopoly over what can be called knowledge or over what one has to know to be called knowledgeable was a powerful too in the hands of colonialists. In other words, knowledge exists from 'soma' to shakespeare, not in Habila, not in Adichie.

Your 'soma' comment also has political implications that go far beyond the smuggness you admit in the statement: "Definitely my shakara is not the most persuasive strategy."

I would rather lived in a world where I read about 'soma' because I find it fascinating not because someone thinks I am literarily bankrupt if I don't.

Let us give Jeremy a break o jare.

Anonymous,  1:21 pm  


I see, Jeremy has released his guard dogs.
You missed the point. It is not about his activism and the number of projects that he is involved in. It is about his philosophy and strategy in Nigeria. There is a certain arrogance and superiority behind it which I have picked up on. He is inflexible and has not adapted which is a major problem. One has to adapt and work the system to your advantage without them realising what you are doing. Jeremy, no bi PRINCE2 certificate you get?
I fear he is falling into the trap of the white man that comes to Nigeria but never stay for the above reasons. As a Nigerian myself, I fear that I am falling into that trap.

I beg do not give me speech about universalism/communitarism/regionalism bull crap

Patrice,  3:14 pm  

@Controversial Anon (4:34 PM) - Point made, but surely you could sense Jeremy's frustration, just as we can all sense yours. By the way, Einstein had a PhD.

@Jeremy (5:24 PM)

"Its been a tough week and I don't own a punch bag. Every now and again you have these 'God help Nigeria' moments and you have to resort to swearing."

Perhaps you should read a self-help book or two . . .

obinna izeogu 9:26 pm  


Your obviously frustrated with Nigeria! I don't know how you do it? But here is something to cheer you up:
I met a girl here in New York 1.5 years ago and she's in Zambia doing something that is worthy of praise.

Anonymous,  6:01 am  

So I guess that is mere irony that "soma" means “read” in Kiswahili then?

I was a foreigner who lived in Nigeria (and 9 other African countries) and I have to say Nigeria was everything else in Africa times 10. But without as much of the good stuff of the rest of Africa, except for Afrobeat, which is the best in the world!

It's not just that the stupid people are at the top. It's that the intelligent people in Nigeria have given up. And those in Power want you to think they are stupid, so you don’t really get mad and don’t really rise up against it and demand better. But are they stupid? Their children are getting visas to the US and Europe and study PHDs there. They amass millions of dollars from public funds, but yet have never been truly held to account or have been required to pay it back! Sounds like a great criminal mind to me, not stupid at all. Immoral, yes. Stupid, no.

My problem with Nigeria was that people did not think outside of the box, they looked at what the guy next to him was doing and tried to imitate that. But only in the get rich quick scheme of things, not in a make things better sense of the idea. One person I knew wanted to do a political talk show in a Nigerian city, because someone else he knew got funding to do it from a foundation. It never occurred to him that since the first show was still going one funders might not be so keen to fund the same thing twice over.

But there is a basic lack of understanding basic things too. For example, basic principles of hygiene are not even understood in Nigeria, and that does not require reading classic fiction. I lived in Mali, a country in the top 5 of the poorest countries in the world. But every house in the village or the city, had a pit latrine and understood that you had to wash your hands before you ate, after you ate and went to the can. People can argue that Nigeria is a more crowded place than Mali, but that is no excuse, that’s a copout.

I find it funny that you all pounce on J’s comment about “if you don’t know this than you’re that.” But what about all the people that have said because you’re British your arrogance is showing. You know, when you see people doing things that only hurt themselves over and over again, you do start to think you know more than them. You get frustrated because they tell you, you can’t understand because you are not Nigerian. What does hand washing have to do with being Nigerian? What does knowing that reading bullshit books on the power of prayer to get you money have to do with being Nigerian? Nothing, it’s everywhere, except in Nigeria, it’s 10 times worse than elsewhere. Guess what my fellow Nigerians, you are not that special. You are human beings just like us and your fellow Africans. You’re not different, you’ve just let things get way too out of control and you don’t like being called on it.

I think Nigeria has to acknowledge what 40 years of authoritarian dictatorship does to the human mind. It puts it into 100% survival mode, where thinking ahead does not come into play. You’re reacting to the moment and not analyzing it. Nigerian Big Men rely on this survival mode thinking. And the reaction to one sentence of this blog just makes the point even more clear. It’s very easy to attack this blogger, much easy than to attack 40 years of degenerating standards in Nigeria, but which is more important to focus on?

Anonymous,  11:21 am  

anon 6.01 well said. I couldn't have said it better myself.

me,  1:21 am  

The thing that's really funny to me (about Jeremy's attackers and Jeremy himself) is that Jeremy can leave Nigeria whenever he decides to and be done with people saying stuff like "if you're so smart, why aren't you the Prime Minister of England?" (?????)

No vex o! You can take the horse to the water but you can't make it drink........

Oh I can't be bothered to cut and paste something from Wiki.

Mike,  10:33 am  

@anonymous 6.01 the main thrust of the post refers to the masses/nation as a whole but the remark at the end of the post is directed at the reader. In that respect it obviously becomes a personal insult and of course is more immediate and quite rightly caught some flak.

Anonymous,  2:00 am  

Why do I think part of J's frustration comes from the negative attacks on Wole Soyinka's piece the other day? To read all those comments about being tired of Soyinka and his big grammer? Am I right?

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