Let’s Bring Back the Book

There is this derogatory belief—or do I call it a myth—among the whites. They say that when you want to hide anything from a black man, you put it in a book. You put it in a book and hide it away from the black nigger because he can’t read. Even when he is literate enough and educated enough to read, he cannot read because reading and research is hardly a part of his DNA. He hates reading; he scorns it, and would, if it is possible, avoid it completely. Reading, for him is neither a voyage of discovery nor the keys to the dreamland but rather an irritant, a necessary evil which he must embrace in order to get along in a white dominated environment. He does not see the wonders in it, nor does it open new vistas of reality for him.

But why does the black man hate reading?  Why does he shy away from an engaging intellectual discourse? In short, why do Nigerians not read?

It was partly to answer this question that President Goodluck Jonathan sometime in 2010, like in a flash of inspiration, came up with an idea to make Nigerians read and write again. He called it Bring Back the Book. But since the project was launched in Lagos almost two years ago, December 20, 2010, nobody has read or heard about it again until last month when, like the mythical minotaur, the President brought the book back home to his home state of Bayelsa.

At a time, some of us who have known the rot in our education system began to wonder why such a good project should be allowed to flop. It is however cheering news that after the delay it has been flagged off in Bayelsa, and like the Olympic torch, will tour round the 36 states and Abuja.

While launching the project, the president said something that caught my fancy. He said that:

“Bring Back the Book campaign is a national survival and progressive imperative that must transcend governments. We have no choice but to read and encourage ourselves to read and read and read again”.

What this means is that the private sector, non-governmental organizations and indeed all lovers of education and knowledge must come together and support the project so that Nigerians can read again.

But there are questions to ask.  How can we bring back the book when our teachers—those who are supposed to make us develop reading habits—are always on strike due of backlog of  unpaid salaries, poor remuneration and lack of teaching aides and instructional materials? How can you bring back the book when poverty can’t let us buy a book, even the paperback? How can you bring back the book when the literacy level is low? The national literacy rate is about 57%. In short how can we bring back the book when government’s budgetary provision for education is nothing to write home about?

These are the puzzles Jonathan must resolve before the book can come home. The truth is that Nigerians don’t read. That largely accounts for why 79 percent of students who sat for the June/July NECO (National Examination Council of Nigeria) exam cold not credit English. Apart from reading to pass exams or attend an interview, the average educated Nigerian does not read for leisure or for knowledge. There is this feeling of relative deprivation in the psyche of an average graduate, who, after some years of study finds it difficult to secure a job. He begins to ponder the essence of education if after many years in the university education does not give him the three square meals he feels he rightly deserves. A feeling of total disconnect sets in, he shuns books and tries his luck elsewhere.

But even upon these, I still support the president in this crusade. All hands must be on deck to make Nigerians imbibe the reading culture. When you take a tour of our educational institutions beginning from the primary to the university and see the level of decay, not only in terms of infrastructure but also in knowledge, you can’t but support the president. When your child in the university comes home and can’t differentiate ‘is’ from ‘was’ in his conversation, you can’t but be appalled and support the president. When you see that, from the records of National Economic and Empowerment Development Strategy (NEEDS), about 49 percent of those who teach our children in all levels of education are unqualified, you can’t but weep and support the president.

Nigerians don’t read. When you give a student money to buy academic books, he would prefer to incinerate it in an orgy of drunkenness. When you give him money to carry out his project in his final year, he would contracts it out to his lecturers who will readily award him the best grade.

The level of decay in our educational institutions has reached an alarming and irredeemable stage that it calls for national emergency. And the reason for this decay is not only that the students are not ready to learn, but that our teachers are equally not ready to teach. Majority of them do not have the zeal and love for education needed to make a child develop love for learning. That is why in order to make good grades, our students resort to sorting, which is an euphemism for cheating.

Recently, a girl who graduated from one of the universities in the east told me a story that could offer a glimpse into the rot in our education system. She told me how she failed a course and forgot to re-sit it when the date was due. She went and explained to the lecturer, but to her chagrin, the lecturer asked her to choose the grade she would want to score. When the results came out, she had scored an “A” for an exam she did not take. She did not tell me what transpired between her and her teacher, but I know the lecturer could not have been that careless with his mark; he may have instead been careless with his “thing”.

There is so much rot in our education which as a result of lack of reading culture. Our students go through the university without knowing the authors of Things Fall Apart or The Man Died, but they can tell you the latest movie in town or the highest paid footballer and goal scorer in the English Premier League. This is so because they believe that they can always sort themselves through, either in kind or in cash. That is why everywhere you see girls coming out with first class certificates but who can hardly defend it. These are Sexually Transmitted Degrees, (STD).

Really, the problem we have is not that we can’t read, but that we have a negative value system. From infant we are programmed to succeed. We are born into a society or culture that emphasizes achievement. Nothing bad about that, but what is bad about it is that we often forget to tell our children that to succeed they must follow the rules and never compromise their conscience. The result is that we keep our conscience in the background and cheat in all facets of life, from the classroom to the presidency. The emphasis is on success, the means to it doesn’t matter to us. It is because of this lack of value system that our country is in the mess it is, from corruption in high places to kidnapping and Boko Haram.

Imbibing reading culture is an imperative for development, and our government at every level must pursue that. When our children are not made to imbibe a culture for reading they develop disdain for education and we imperil their future and our society because they cannot compete at the international level. Francis Bacon said that “reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man”. It is when we read that we are fully human, when we can think rationally and become abreast of developments in our immediate environment and the global village. It is when we speak and write that we can communicate, pass on knowledge and document our values for posterity.

But for Nigerians to read again the government must play a leading and critical role. Nigerians don’t read not because they are not willing to read but because they are virtually no books to read. Let me share my experience with you. In October last year, two weeks after the publication of Steve Jobs —the official biography of late Steve Jobs the imaginative and creative Apple founder—by Walter Issacson, I went about looking for it in most of our popular bookstores in the country but could not find it.  I had to place an order for it abroad to get it. I ran into the same frustration when I wanted to buy No Greater Honour by Condolizza Rice.

The truth is that there are no standard bookstores in Nigeria unlike what we get in a comparatively developing economy like Egypt. Maarouf Book Shop in Alexandria Egypt, for instance, employs over 1000 staff and stocks millions of books in every genre. But in Nigeria, visit any bookshop today and you will be utterly disappointed. There are no books there; all you see are get-rich-quick books that mirror where our heart is—money, not knowledge. At the heydays of News of the World published in London, the daily circulation strength was close to 8 million copies. But how many does our best tabloids in Nigeria print? Less than 200,000 copies all because we don’t read. Besides, how many Nigerians have online presence? Less than 2 percent. Shame on us!

What has fuelled this lack of reading habit among us is the absence of a national book policy. There is no government body to support or subsidize the publication of books unlike what we see elsewhere. This hiatus has given rise to the emergence of half-baked printers who lack the finesse needed in book publishing. The corollary is that most of the books we see on our bookshelves are “cut and join,” self-published, usually junks which invariably are not peer-reviewed.

Another thing government should do to bring back the book and revive reading culture among Nigerians is to equip our public libraries with current books and open more in our senatorial zones. Our libraries are dead. You hardly can see any relevant and current books there. Even with the quantum leap in sciences and information technology, you hardly can see current books there on these frontiers of knowledge. In short, our libraries have been left behind.

Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to his son’s teacher telling him to teach his son the wonders of books. Yes, there are wonders in books. Knowledge gives freedom; it sets us free from the shackles of bondage. It ignites the imagination and allows us to roam wild and thread where angels dare not. Knowledge is power, power to overthrow principalities, power to be ourselves, power to pull down strongholds and overthrow corrupt and inept leadership.

We need these powers.  Let’s join hands with Jonathan to bring back the book now.

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