The following are facts: I’m 6ft tall, dark and introverted. No one praises me for being any of those things, and, except for the silly skin-related nicknames I got in senior secondary school, no one berates me for them either. They are all due to my genes. The people who should take credit for any good that comes out of those things should be my parents.
I regard my reading habits in the light of the facts above. I did nothing to be the kind of human whose primary source of pleasure is the written word. Again, the people who deserve credit are my parents. They were the ones who raised me in a house where books were placed higher than all other sources of entertainment and pleasure. When folks acknowledge my ability to read always, I feel awkward. It is the same way I would feel if anyone praised me for being tall, or introverted.
I consider a great thirst for books, and the time and resources to get as much as is needed to satisfy that thirst, a privilege. One of my best students in Anambra state, a girl, was not very expressive. I suggested that she spend more time reading storybooks so she could help her vocabulary and grasp of English language. Then one day, she complained to me that she was sleeping too much. I asked why. She said she had to go to farm everyday after school, and throughout the weekend. My advice about books suddenly looked like nonsense. Girl was already punching way above her weight. She indeed started to read more books at the expense of play. She would clutch her bag to her chest during the break, and free periods, and read novellas.
I recently unfollowed someone on Twitter. Reason: he was always throwing aspirational words around about how people should take charge of their lives. Always speaking loftily about how jobs were limiting, how people should reach their full potential by ditching slave-like conditions of labour and going after their dreams. He was an upper-middle class guy with a good job.
Something tells me part of my anger towards him is because I have no paying job. *shrugs* I found it stupid that someone with the privilege to leave his regular job and pursue artistic disciplines, but isn’t doing that, would climb a soapbox daily, and consistently preach at people to do the same without acknowledging his privilege.
I make it a point to follow lots of folks out of my class because I never want to be myopic. I want to have an idea of how the world is seen by those who are comfortable. I may not be able to afford a trip to exotic cities every other week, but I’ll definitely follow someone who does and shares the experience so as to live vicariously through them. What I would not condone is they preaching to me like I’m doing something wrong to not live like them.
Cultural myopia is often framed as a disease of the poor/underprivileged.
Myopic (adjective) (someone):
i. has not travelled or seen the world.
ii. doesn’t read the right books.
iii. holds divergent cultural views.
Seldom do people talk about the myopia of those who know all about the good life but nothing about the majority of the world who aspire to simply live.
I believe books are still the best way to fight myopia. But I’ve also realised this belief comes easily to me because of my privilege.* I’ve been raised to cherish books. I have no decent pair of jeans but I have so many books I’ve bought this year that are still unread, yet I must not enter a bookstore with money in my pocket. So, when I tell people to read, I do not assume they will find it easy to stay with books for hours like I do.
A love for books may not be one of the facts of your lives right now. That is fine. What we can all do, however, is to work gradually towards expanding/improving our taste. This time last year, visual arts was gibberish to me. Now, I’m slowly working my way towards being able to stare at an abstract painting and not exclaim “rich people are stupid.” We are not all privileged, but we can work towards eliminating the handicaps life hands us.
So, please read. Read outside your interests. Read more literature. Read at your own pace. And if anyone ever tries to make you feel bad for being under-read (under-travelled, under-cultured, under-refined), calmly silence them and continue your work towards being a better you.
*It is possible to read through this and wonder why people who cannot afford books do not simply go to the library to read. But this would also be a reflection of your privilege. I went through primary and secondary school without ever entering a well-equipped library. To put this in perspective: I’m a lower middle-class Nigerian who attended private schools.
Images by Mo Riza via Flickr