Doing it by the book

The first annual National Book Week suffered a strike-induced hitch on Monday when attendance of school children dropped dramatically on its final day.

The National Book Week is a joint venture by the South African Book Development Council—the representative body of the South African book sector—and the national department of arts and culture to promote the value of reading.

“Unfortunately there weren’t many schoolchildren around today [Monday], as the provincial education minister has instructed teachers to not leave school during class time,” event organiser Elitha van der Sandt told Mail & Guardian.

“Reading is the best way to access knowledge and the idea behind National Reading Week and this exciting programme is to get more people to appreciate the joy that comes with reading a book,” Van der Sandt told the M&G at the venue for this inaugural event, Museum Africa in Newtown, Johannesburg.

“The figures suggest that only 14% of South Africans read books regularly, with just 5% of them buying books.

“Because of our history, many South Africans didn’t get to engage with books beyond a certain level and we want to change that. We want to get a culture of reading going.”

The strike-induced absence of children on Monday contrasted strongly with the scene the same venue presented when the M&G visited on Saturday, the second day of the Book Week.

The visitor-friendly Museum Africa overflowed with children clearly excited by their surroundings and—remarkably in the 21st-century’s cellphone and internet-dominated youth culture—absorbed in, of all things, printed books.

The weekend as a whole—the event continued on Sunday—was a superbly well-managed series of strategies to draw children into the magic of books. In one session the M&G observed on Saturday, tiny children (they could not have been more than six or seven years old) in tiny chairs sat spellbound, each with books in their hands, as their 20something mentor for the session took them through the printed charms they held.

The concept of the National Book Week draws on influences from other such events held on the African continent and the organisers are hoping it will become a fixture on the continent.

“We drew together various sectors of the publishing community for this event and it was a refreshing change that we were taking our cue from the rest of Africa, instead of always trying to be the leaders,” said Van der Sandt.

“Concepts such as the reading tent, which was teeming with children at the weekend, are directly lifted from similar festivals held in Tanzania and Kenya, for example.”

A full programme of seminars was run at the venue at the same time, including a Reading Promotion Symposium, How to sessions, an Authors’ Programme and a session on the Future of Reading.

The highlight of the activities on offer though was the Pan African Writers’ Symposium—organised in partnership with the Academic and Non-Fiction Authors’ Association of South Africa. The symposium offered a platform for authors from the continent to interact on issues relating to non-fiction writing, ranging from electronic publishing, copyright and contracts to research resources and national book policies.

On Monday, the symposium debated Public Lending Rights, with delegates putting forward their proposals for South Africa to adopt a system of royalty payments for authors every time their books are loaned out at libraries.

Other topics discussed at the forum included “E-publishing for Authors”, “Research: The Lack of Resources” and “Publish or Perish: Survival for Academics”.

“Our aim for the event was to have a little something for everyone,” said Van der Sandt. “And hopefully we can reach new audiences by getting all these people with an interest in books together in one place.”

The event followed hot on the heels of World Literacy Day the week before (September 9) and sponsors showed their commitment to getting more children reading by making substantial donations of books to 30 schools and 44 libraries in Gauteng.

The event will be held in a different province each year to ensure that as many schools and libraries as possible benefit by receiving donations of books.

Ryan Hoffmann
David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane is currently the Mail & Guardian's education editor. He obtained an honours degree in English literature, a fairly unpopular choice among those who'd advised him to study something that would give him a real career and a pension plan. David joined the M&G in the late 1990s. There, the publication's youth – which was nearly everyone except him – also tried to further his education. Since April 2010, he's participated in the largest expansion of education coverage the M&G Media has ever undertaken. He says he's "soon" going on "real annual leave", which will entail "switching off this smart phone the M&G youth told me I needed".  
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