What discerning book thieves tell us about a country’s reading culture

The entry refers to I Write What I Like, a volume of collected writings by Steve Biko, the Black Consciousness leader tortured to death in police custody in 1977. The library used to have six copies of the volume, but they have all been borrowed and never returned.

Pirates of the book world
Other public libraries in Gauteng, one of South Africa nine provinces and its economic hub, have similar stories to tell. Their copies of Biko have long been kidnapped.

Others writers too are routinely abducted by “bookaneers”. Two current favourites are the political philosophers, Frantz Fanon and Achille Mbembe. The University of South Africa library keeps Fanon’s major titles in what it calls a “high-risk archive”. Judging from library records, Mbembe’s works are often checked out but not returned.

Book theft in South Africa has recently been under the spotlight. Last month, Jacana publishers ran a “Hot Reads campaign” featuring their titles that are most frequently shoplifted from South African bookshops. The list is dominated by titles on African political history and biography, including Biko, with some self-help titles thrown in.

In some cases, the patterns of biblio-shoplifting are predictable. Bibles, religious and self-help books are stolen for resale. This theft reaches across all levels of society – from vagrants stealing newspapers for bedding to book-dealers lifting rare editions from libraries and bookstores.

Yet not all shoplifters pilfer to resell. Those purloining Biko, Fanon and Mbembe want to read them so badly that they will steal them.

Whose reading culture?
Can these “bookaneers” teach us anything about reading cultures in South Africa? Can they throw light on the discussions about the white-domination of the literary system that recently surfaced around the Franschoek Literary Festival?

The novelist Thando Mgqolozana famously walked out of the festival and the white establishment that it embodies. His exit sparked a debate on “decolonising South African literature”. Dovetailing with the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at the University of Cape Town, these discussions have ranged widely, touching on the structures of publishing, the size of the book market, library funding and the state of education.

One strand in these debates dealt with a recurring theme: the supposed lack of a reading culture in South Africa. This colonial chestnut has been around for a long time and has its roots in imperial ideas where the book was a symbol of English authority but also a “gift” to help “civilise” colonised subjects. These subjects could supposedly never possess the book in the same way as those who had brought it and to whom it apparently “belonged”.

These ideas persist into the present, apparent among those who can only understand a reading culture as what white middle-class folks do. Any other modes of book consumption don’t seem to count as reading.

This narrow view of reading culture has been blown apart as scholars have begun exploring the rich histories of reading in South Africa. Archie Dick’s The Hidden History of South Africa’s Book and Reading Cultures documents common readers excluded by racist structures, actively or passively prevented from reading, but managing to read nonetheless. The book presents a rich cast of characters – slaves, soldiers, political prisoners, township activists, political exiles – and ingenious ways in which they managed to read against the odds.

From a different perspective, Peter McDonald’s The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and its Cultural Consequences examines the workings of the censorship board and how it formed and deformed ideas about what literature is or should be.

Rachel Matteau interviewed people who read banned material clandestinely under apartheid and discussed how and where they hid books and how they shared them.

Recently, Caroline Davis and David Johnson’s The Book in Africa: Critical Debates decolonises older, colonially shaped accounts of books and reading in Africa. These focus mainly on Christian mission presses while overlooking the pre-colonial Muslim traditions of manuscript book production.

Reading culture revisited
The figure of the “bookaneer” looks back to one particular mode of passionate political reading under apartheid – in trade unions, university residences, community groups, debating and discussion groups, people read material deeply, closely and carefully. Much of this material was banned and was passed clandestinely from hand to hand. Dog-eared photocopies circulated among trusted associates.

In these clandestine settings, books became common property. They resembled the samizdat or self-published literature in the Soviet Union, a widespread system of underground publishing generally produced on typewriters with carbon paper and passed from hand to hand.

In such contexts of oppression, appropriating books for political ends made sense. This attitude was widespread in radical circles across the world. The famous US anarchist Abbie Hoffman, active in the 1960 and 1970s, produced a volume entitled Steal this Book.

Like readers under apartheid, present-day bookaneers are grappling with pressing political issues. As the Rhodes Must Fall campaign demonstrated, these issues have a strong Black Consciousness element and address themes of psychological liberation and experiential questions of confronting white domination.

The “kidnapped” writers – Fanon, Biko and Mbembe – deal with the residues of colonial and apartheid violence through psychic questions of the self. These books speak to a new generation in existential and psychic idioms that resonate with the struggles of the present.

In keeping with radical political cultures across the world, readers have turned these books into common property. They have created a particular reading subculture in South Africa that joins a long legacy of inventive and insouciant modes of reading.

Isabel Hofmeyr is a professor of African Literature at University of the Witwatersrand.

This article was first published by The Conversation.

The Conversation

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