By HENRY AKUBUIRO
In western countries like the United Kingdom and the United States of America, to mention a few, more than half of the people onboard a train have their eyes feasted on books reading silently. It is a ritual the reading public observes. The same can’t be said of commuters in Nigeria. Usually, exchange of gossips and loud arguments are a given. Using them as a microcosm of the entire nation, a foreigner could arrive at a conclusion that ours isn’t a reading society. But he runs the risk of faulty generalisation. The debate on the death or otherwise of reading culture in Nigeria has gained currency over the years, with some saying Nigerians no longer read. This view, however, isn’t shared by all. But, where does the pendulum swing in 2017?
It is wrong to say Nigerians don’t read
By DAMIETE BRAIDE & OLAMIDE BABATUNDE
It is often joked that, if you want to hide anything from a Nigerian, put it in writing, because they don’t read. How true is it? We sought the views of authors, publishers and booksellers to find whether this assumption is tenable.
Olatunbosun Taofeek, a scholar-writer doesn’t believe Nigerians don’t read. He said, “They are still reading. It is hard for people to believe that you can sell ten thousand copies of a novel, play, collection of poems, inspirational books or a text book in just two weeks.
As a host of a radio programme, the Writers’ World, former Secretary (Lagos) and Public Relations Officer (National) of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) and having worked with some local and international book vendors, he finds it difficult to believe that Nigerians don’t read, contrary to that insinuation by some.
He explained, “There are forty-five private universities, more than thirty-eight federal universities, more than thirty-six states universities, sundry polytechnics and countless colleges of education. All these institutions are making use of recommended and non-recommended books. They all have libraries and bookstore one way or the other. Nigerian population is above one hundred and twenty million with approximately seventy million with the capacity to read and write.
“The total population of Ghana is not up to twenty-five million. Nigeria now ranks as one of the countries in the world with the highest number of PhDs. All these sectors deal with books yet the popular dictum is ‘Nigerians are not reading’. I think there is a misconception to this maxim I will like to explicate.”
So, what books are Nigerians reading? “Majority of the books read in Nigeria are foreign books, thus killing the local book industry. The local book industry would have absorbed more than three to five million Nigerians, but Nigerian political duplicity has killed such magnum opus. Import waiver on books at the ports is responsible. So majority of to-be-used books are imported. Nigerians hardly patronise published in Nigeria or science writers—the delusion is that Nigerians don’t write well.
“There are churches and pastors in Nigeria that are heavyweight champions in selling their books. They live, built houses, buy cars, etcetera, with profits from books sold in Nigeria. Some make billions within a year from their manuals/books from the Nigerian population. A lot of Nigerians can quote their pastors in their dreams, because they have read them cover-to-cover, ranging from daily devotionals to spiritual bestsellers. Nigerian pastors are now writing their own Bibles because of the marketability to the reading Nigerian public.
“The only area not yet in vogue is the digital books. Nigerians still prefer the paperback books to digital. The digital reading is mostly among the youth and the Nigerian youth sadly are not the reading type. Music, social media and games are their preoccupations on the digital devices.”
If there is going to be an improvement in reading by Nigerians, the government, he said should work on the book industry to make books cheaper and reduce the numbers of imported books to enhance the sales of rights and local content. That’s not all.
He said, “Nigerian writers also need to improve on the quality of their writing. As a lecturer, I feel sad when I see some books published by professors/PhD holders with grammatical infelicities and formatting headaches. Lastly, publicity ought to be improved. Nobody will go looking for a book sitting in a room with one publisher in Three Crown Road in Ibadan. People want to see it on billboards, TV screen, hear it on radio, read it on papers and social media. While foreign books get 80% publicity, made in Nigerian books get 2% publicity, hence we hear and see more of European/American books than Nigerian books, thus leading to the error submission that Nigerians don’t read since the public hardly hear or see made in Nigeria or written by Nigerian books.”
Another lecturer and writer, Dr Lola Akande of the Department of English, University of Lagos, said very few Nigerians read and those who read do so out of duty rather than desire. According to her, “Young people in Nigeria prefer to watch movies, chat with their friends, or play games. Older people prefer to chase money or worry about not having money rather than read. The few adults who read have a sense of duty to read for knowledge and continuous self-improvement. Younger people who read do so mostly out of compulsion such as the necessity to pass examinations and obtain certificates. Very few students read out of a genuine interest to know more.”
When she published her first novel, she gave copies to a few of her friends, apparently because she was not aware that people weren’t used to reading. Not a single one of them read the novel in spite of the fact that it is supposed to be easy-to-read since it is a novel. She admitted, “They were also very honest with me. All of them confessed to me that they did not read it, because they could not remember the last time they read. Some of them told me they gave it to their children. None of them made a promise to read it at some later date. Nigerian don’t read.”
Asked if digital books are better than hard cover books, she answered in the negative, “Reading is a duty. This means that those who do not have a sense of duty to read would not read regardless of what form the book takes. Similarly, those who have a sense of duty to read would search for and read a book whether it is in digital or hard copy. However, the availability of books in digital form is very helpful as it provides easier access and because a greater number of people will have access to books in digital form, it follows that more people will likely read books that are available in digital form.
“As a lecturer, I observe, for instance, that some of my students, who would ordinarily not read prescribed texts manage to read the summary of books that are digitally available. While reading just the summary is neither ideal nor acceptable, it is certainly better than not reading anything about the book.”
For the General Manager, Sales and Marketing CSS Bookshops Limited, Dare Oluwatuyi, “The answer is neither here nor there. Nigerians read, but the level or the percentage of those who read compared to those who don’t read is what is debatable. What are the circumstances that warrant whether they read or not? For those who go to school definitely, they have to read, but, after school, do they still read? After their first degree, some people still go for masters and they have to read.
“For those who are working, do they read? Some professionals have to read, because they have to keep updates. It is said that, if you want to hide something from a Blackman, put it in a book; this may not be absolutely true but, because of our economy, the purchasing power to buy books has really reduced because the little money they have, a lot of things compete for it.”
He believed that inflation over the years had taken a toll on the economy and this has also affected the cost of books. “For example, in the last two years, the exchange rate of the dollar has gone up. A book that was imported into the country, five years ago and was sold for N1000, but, today, that same book goes for N5000 or more. This may cause people not to be able to afford books to buy.
“Books written by Nigerian authors are not many in the country. When you are looking at professional disciplines, you have very few books by Nigerian authors, so foreign titles dominate our market. I have observed that this has made Nigerians to buy more of foreign books than Nigerian books.
“For those in primary and secondary schools, they buy books, because parents buy books for their wards. In some schools, it is compulsory that they pay for books alongside with the school fees.
While for those in public schools, some parents will struggle to buy books in English Language and Mathematics only. At that level, they do read. At the tertiary level, the individual have choices, because their parents don’t buy books for them again but the student decides on which book to buy.
“They have libraries in their schools; some of them may go to the library, to do research to study. But because of the financial strength of people coupled with expensive books, people may not buy books to read. In the area of literary books, you will find out that most of them are written after the educational curriculum, therefore, it becomes compulsory for the students to buy them when they offer such courses. Generally, Nigerians buy biographies, autobiographies, motivational books and a lot of religious books to read.
For reading culture to be improved, Oluwatuyi said many things should be done, because, “as individuals, we keep studying until the individual dies”. He was of the view, too, that the day people stop reading, they are at a standstill, “The government needs to do a lot of things in this aspect. Teachers need to be encouraged for them to encourage their students to read. When teachers are well paid, they will be interested in doing their job very well. Reading culture should be inculcated into the minds of the younger ones so that they have to read.”
The Floor Manager Patabah Bookstore Limited, Surulere, Lagos, Charles Chima, submitted that Nigerians read considering the volumes of books they buy when they visit the bookstore. The kind of books they read differ from one another.
He said, “I believe Nigerians have a good reading culture, because they read both foreign books and books written by Nigerians. Some of the Nigerian books they read include books written by Chimamanda Adiche, the late Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka Books, Chima Nwokolo, Niyi Osundare, among others,” adding that, despite the economic situation in the country, Nigerians buy good books to read and they also buy books for their children to read.
What do Nigerians read exactly?
By SIMEON MPAMUGOH
Publishers and readers who spoke to The Sun Literary Review are divided on this issue. Remi Akano is the Chief Steward Officer, KP Books. He said of Nigeria’s reading habits, “It is difficult to decipher what people are reading, because people stay a lot more online. Why do they stay much online? What are the feeds? It is mostly gossip, half-truth and downright falsehood and, like President Donald Trump of United States of America, once described it, ‘it is fake news’; those are the kinds of stuffs people are engaging themselves in.
“It is really a shame and, unfortunately, the truth. If you are on any of the social media platforms, you will be amazed the sort of things people share. It shows one what they are really reading. Obviously, there are still people reading to develop themselves; there are people who read textbooks like motivational and inspirational books. If we look at the percentage, it is likely to be low.
“One thing, though, we can be sure Nigerians are reading is the Bible; whether they are reading it on their various apps or good old papyrus, truth is that people are reading the Bible; whether they are using the word there is a different ball game but we can tell that people are reading the bible across board; and immediately they drop the bible what they do afterward is a different ball game. You can also tell by what people share on the social media –things that go viral. By and large what, people are interested in are gossip, such as one celebrity is baby mama; this one is married to another; that one has divorced one and married another; one politician has stolen XYZ billions of naira, etcetera. Those are the things, sadly, people are reading.
“We also have people who read to pass examinations, but one needs a survey to ascertain that, because there are people who need the certificate but are not necessarily reading to pass it; they have other ways of getting the certificate. So one cannot actually say that, if there was a survey on a campus of the university that 50-80% of students are reading the text books. It is not certain, because, unfortunately, people don’t pass their exams. The sizable percentage of them know ‘sorting’, even though it is not empirical, but truth is that good percentage of our people only know other ways of passing their exams,” Akano said.
Dr Obiora Madu is a publisher and author whose response began with a rhetorical question: “Do we really read?” He clarified, “The days of Mills and Boons and James Hadley Chase are over. Right now, people read motivational books. We don’t find much of love stories around as it was in those days. I think that people read a lot more of things that are of digitally concern. There is a massive expansion of online and internet related materials. A lot of things actually need to be incorporated into the curriculum of the university which could change, a bit, the direction of what students read. Unfortunately, we are operating a curricular that is about 50 years old and expecting to get the result other people are getting. So, there isn’t too much of reading going on, but there are still people who truly read.
“We have those who will pick up a book, for instance, Monday morning; by Saturday, they drop it; but they are few. Why some of my books are selling is because people need it, for it has to help them improve their business. And it is the kind of books in operation now: books on outsourcing and agriculture, people are actually looking for books that would enhance their operations and earning capacity. And it cuts across. By and large, we can say people read books that would enhance their capacity to earn across board,” he said.
Literamed Publications Limited is based in Oregun, Ikeja, Lagos, and run by Otunba Lawal Solarin. One of the staff of the publishing company offered this solution to the issue of reading to pass exams.
He said, “The only way is to ensure exam questions don’t leak. We should ensure there is adequate security of exam question papers. Once the questions are not likely to leak, they will want to read.
“To encourage children to read, especially those in the primary classes, the company started an initiative known as Lantern Partner School.
“Schools in this category are allowed to buy storybooks of their choice at a discount and also have the privilege of reading the new titles first which are in Adventure, Health, Fairy Tales, Folktales, Bible Stories, Heroes, Drama and Literary Series. They are carefully graded for different ages such as Pre-primary, Pre-Teen, Teen, and Advance and serve as a natural starter for children as their reading needs from the early year to the mature stages,” he said.
A middle-age security officer in one of the leading publishing companies in Oba Akran Avenue, Ikeja, Lagos, John Ehiosu said, “There is a huge gap between reading habit now among Nigerians and what we had during our time which has brought about youths engaging in exam malpractices, cult and criminal activities. They want to make money at all cost so as to cover their knowledge deficiencies; they are not ready to read, yet they want to come out with good results.
“The number of people that read today are quite few; those who have the natural instinct to study and be successful. Others have a drive to crime and corruption; penchant to make it fast, thus turning a blind eye to books that can bring about mental rebirth and this is why a lot of people don’t find reading fanciful, because, to them, it is a waste of time, which, at the end of the day, does not better the lot of those who read,” he said.
He reiterated that, many years ago, there was a reading habit, which nosedived, because many people don’t like to read, adding that they preferred easy way out and, which explained why there were high spate of cultism, kidnapping, armed robbery and terrorism in the land.
He maintained that, today, many young people wanted to make it quick, to the neglect of reading where they can be fed intellectually. According to him, “This has also affected the quality of leadership we are producing today, because, as the saying goes, a reader is a leader. In the past, there was a drive to read, but same cannot be said of Nigerians today as many Nigerians would prefer building a car lot full of Hummer and Range Rover, to building library stashed with books,” he said.
Chinonyerem Nwanosike, a literary artist and commentator on national issues, said, “Today, Nigerians still read, especially online. What we read is what makes the difference. Aside gossips, another trend is bantering. Uncouth expressions and very awkward reasoning are the popular display that will make many reasonable persons query a trend that has done us more harm than good.
“I think the need to restructure school curriculum to make reading more rewarding and attractive is necessary. This is because you may not blame the youth so much with their dispositions considering that people who study hard get lesser rewards often than those who don’t.
Publishers can also help in initiating programmes that will help improve reading habit just like some organisations that has come up with literary competitions, which has produced new authors in Nigeria, in all states of the federation with the grand finale in Abuja,” she canvassed.