Taking the book to the social media generation

Elliot Ziwira @ The Book Store
Give me a book anytime and take away everything else and I will survive; give me all and deny me access to books and I will die, for the written word is my life.Gentle reader, has it ever occurred to you that the man who can read and does not read is no better than he who cannot read? What good does it serve him to pretend that he is a man of letters if he seldom reads?

One who reads because he/she can has a better understanding of the world than one who can read but decides not to. No one who reads a poem or a chapter per day remains poor in the strictest sense of the word, for the poverty of ideas is the worst form of lack.

A good book is as inspirational as it is therapeutic, and it will not fail to hoist you onto a whirlwind journey of intrigue.

Books! Books! Books! What happened to the love for books? The reading culture has died, or has it? Where are the books to read? Our beloved writers, where are you? Has the muse deserted you?

A call to our bookshops will bare a sad fact; there are NO books to talk about, yet writers are still writing, or are they? So where are our beloved books, for some of us are not taken over yet, to the concept of online publication, for it somehow belies our idea of a book?

And there lies the problem gentle reader, technology. Technology has given birth to a new reader, one who is always behind time, but is never on time. One who cannot even spell his/her own name because it is too long.

One who reads anything and everything posted on social media, consumes it wholesome, and without verifying its authenticity, or even correcting grammar, tenses and spellings, forwards it.

Our children have become consumers of data, and there seems to be no one to help them convert the data into knowledge. Whereas we used to discuss books, they talk about social media, movies, gadgets and cars. We used to have pride in expressing ourselves in flowery language, now they cannot tell “stationary” from “stationery” or “you” from “ewe”.

How then do we take the book to them, since they are the leaders of tomorrow? Could it be a case of selling ice to the Eskimos? Are writers and publishers doing enough to capture the attention of today’s reader?

I had so many questions on my mind when I got aboard the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF) ship which docked at the Harare Gardens on July 31, and took sail to some other place, on Saturday August 5, 2017, where I pray it will not keel over before 12 moons are out, considering the turbulence that I felt onboard.

I must say it here gentle reader that if you love books the way I do, or have loved them once, then ZIBF is not new to you. It has been around for quite some time, and has endured it all. What has changed drastically, though, is the terrain, and it is this terrain that the organisers and stakeholders of the annual book party that we so much love, must learn to navigate.

The radar in this navigation is poised on the social media generation, an important cog in the book industry because of its numerical strength.

This social media generation has an entry point; the primary and secondary pupils, and in my view it is this group that needs to be taken care of, for the reading culture to be harnessed. This group can determine which books are to be bought and why, because they follow trends, and can easily be persuaded to buy books by their teachers. So what happens if the teachers do not read? You may ask.

Well, why would teachers not read if their job entails that they read? Do pupils and teachers have a choice when it comes to reading? So if they do not have a choice, why are they not reading? Are they not really reading or they have shifted reading platforms?

I had a chance to interact with teachers, pupils, parents, publishers and writers for three days aboard the ZIBF ship, and I must say indeed The Book Must Pay, but the numbers were not encouraging.

The initiative to feature children prominently in ZIBF programmes such as Junior Achievers Competition, Meet the Author sessions, Children’s Reading Tent, Digital Zone and Live Literature is laudable, but that alone falls short if the numbers are not there.

ZIBF organisers and stakeholders need to make sure that they are visible throughout the year. Most of the pupils I interacted with were not aware why they were in the Harare Gardens; they did not know what ZIBF meant, some came because they were told by their teachers about the book fair and their schools provided them with transport, a few said they saw posters.

It was encouraging, though, to see pupils from Goteka Secondary School in Chiweshe at the fair. Talent Muchenje, a Form Three pupil from the school, said that she was among a group of 17 pupils who were on a cultural exchange programme at His Mercy Christian College, in Borrowdale, thus she got a chance to be at the ZIBF, which she said she didn’t know anything about before August 3, 2017.

She also bemoaned lack of books at her school as she could not readily give a book title, or name any author she had come across, neither did she know much about social media.

Ruvimbo Chikanda, from His Mercy Christian College, who had a soft spot for books, said she was introduced to the ZIBF by her grandfather, Stephen Chifunyise, but like her schoolmate Lydia Ndenzako, who is from Tanzania, she believed that more and bigger exhibition stands should be erected and that more books, and not just brochures, should be displayed.

Of the schools that I interacted with Kuwadzana High 2 School had the largest group, with 65 pupils from Form One to Upper Sixth. There was so much enthusiasm in this group, but their knowledge of books was limited to set books and textbooks.

Trace Kanyenze and Talent Zinhu (Form Four), impressed me as avid readers, and could readily give details about authors and journalists as they said they religiously read The Herald, Kwayedza and The Sunday Mail availed at their school, because of the papers’ columns on books and education.

The Upper Sixth group of Tanaka Mutapa, Sibongile Ndhlovu, Shylet Mundonda, Chantelle Kandeya and Rachel Tinani, who said they were told about ZIBF by their English teacher and Head of Department Mrs Tasara, intimated that they could have been happier had they seen Memory Chirere, whom I told them was around, or any other prescribed author.

Unfortunately, like most of them around, the dream of interacting with their favourite writers was shattered because when I looked around none was in sight.

They admitted that social media had opened a new vent for reading escape, which had seen their language use deteriorating, because of the content available online, although they believed that lack of books to read at school and home, save for textbooks, could be a contributing factor, so they end up reading whatever is available on social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter.

A fact that was corroborated by the teachers that I talked to; all boiling down to lack of books and embracing of social media in taking the book to the new generation, as well as pricing the books right.

Visiting the College Press stand was revealing as it seemed to be the most popular place for pupils and parents, mainly because of its drawcard; New Curriculum textbooks, which were launched on Friday August 4.

They were also giving away T-shirts, drinking bottles and pens, an initiative which I really appreciated as At the Bookstore now has a branded drinking bottle and new pen courtesy of the beautiful kids Dirose Kutalika (3) and Danielle Nyoni (9), who played ushers on the last day of the fair.

Nancy Chinorwadza (College Press) said that parents and pupils wanted to know what had changed in the new curriculum in terms of content and subjects. She also said that the issue of book prices being high was never raised, as they have competitively priced them.

Still wondering about the issue of prices and New Curriculum books, I was taken in by the theme: “Book Prices Must Fall” at Rejoice Ngwenya’s Coalition for Market & Liberal Solutions (Comaliso) stand. Books were selling for as little as $0,50 and $1, and they were sold out. Talk about people not reading.

Also riding on the New Curriculum textbooks was Consulters Publishing Services (CPS).

An editor at the Mambo Press exhibition stand, Progress Nigwa, said that although the turnout was low, they have been able to showcase themselves because visibility is all that matters. She also said that although they have 18 secondary school setbooks for the period 2017-2019, in Shona, Ndebele and English, they only had one New Curriculum textbook, which was a big letdown. Nigwa also reiterated the need to constantly visit schools with books, since that is where the bulk of their readers are.

So how do we catch them young?

Nyadire Teachers’ College seemed to have a solution with their concept of developing the reader from the womb, through encouraging parents to read to their developing children before they are born, and continue doing so after birth.

The love for books and reading, said Roseline Kumvekera, a lecturer at the college, is developed first by parents, then primary schoolteachers, starting from ECD, followed by secondary schoolteachers, so there should be constant development of parents and teachers so that they move with prevailing trends. True, the book is rewarding at every stage; its payment is not always monetary.

So if the parent does not read, the child knows nothing about books, the teacher does not know where to find books after the departure of the ZIBF vessel, what then will happen to the social media generation, which reads whatever comes its way as long as it is trending? And where does this leave the writer, if only well-established publishers can make a killing on textbooks, and determine the royalties to pay; and the well-oiled piracy machinery is on full throttle?

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