I’ve come to accept that idiocy is my portion. I mean, what other than idiocy, or a particularly potent batch of lunacy would convince me to leave full-time employ and pursue publishing? Additionally, I’m not even smart enough to be publishing academic texts, I’m publishing poetry and fiction. Every puss, fowl and them friend can tell you Jamaicans don’t read. Unfortunately, some one forgot to tell the children who partici
pated in the Kingston Book Fest Behind the Book Tour, because when they were let loose in Bookland (New Kingston) they behaved as though they were in Candyland.
As I and my fellow KBF organizers watched the 28 excited children go through the selection of books, selecting ones to peruse and often going off to pay for their ultimate choice, I felt vindicated in my bout of madness because maybe it isn’t a given that Jamaica
ns don’t read, maybe we have simply bought into this lie for so long that we refuse to do anything about it. Watching people at the Kingston Book Fair made me feel even more certain about this, because if Jamaicans don’t read, why were there so many people at the fair and why were they walking away with bags with books in them – books they had bought?
As the Jamaican dollar skanks its way further down the pole of insignificance, what we should realize is that in not stimulating a reading culture, we have been deliberately under-developing the country. Our education policies encourage functional literacy, not reading as a way for developing critical thinking, because if this country blossomed into critical thinkers than our pork barrel tactics would be overturned.
When we say Jamaicans don’t read, we say it as though in other countries, readers are just born not bred, and it is merely the inherent “wutlessness” of Jamaicans that have kept them from reading. Thanks to the arrival of Calabash, the reading landscape experienced some significant changes over the past decade, but as yet, it is certainly not enough.What I firmly believe is that if we want our country to change, one of the fundamental things we must encourage is greater levels of critical thinking, and while it is not the only tool to do this, books are an excellent avenue.
A part of the problem is that in the main, due to the ‘Jamaicans don’t read’ label, much of the output from Caribbean publishers and publishers of Caribbean content, has been geared at the education system. So the booklist game is bread and meat of the publisher especially in this landscape. Most of the Caribbean books many of us read, were only encountered there, and once a book has reached the promised land of the book list, it hangs on for as long as it can, because once it falls off, it falls into the abyss of forgetting.
Yet there is an underlying problem with most Caribbean works of fiction, the majority of which are published by the same few British publishing houses, are only seen with the tarnish of the “school book”.
I remember receiving a copy of Oliver Twist and Green Days By the River for my thirteenth birthday. I read and enjoyed both books, but at the end of the summer when we returned to school and discovered that Green Days By the River was on that year’s booklist, I felt betrayed. How could my mother have given me a “school book” for my birthday present? Did she not know what section of the store she was in? Never mind that I had enjoyed it, I now knew that it was not a thing for pleasure but for learning.
One of the other events of the Kingston Book Festival was to tour of three schools, Ardenne High, Campion College and Mico with writers, editors and publishers. The team included Kei Miller, Diane Brown, Latoya West Blackwood, Roland Watson-Grant and Dennis Chung. They spoke to the students about their careers as well as about the kinds of books they wanted to read. It was revelatory, especially at highlighting that there is a good untapped market of young readers out there who are interested in getting content they can relate to and content which isn’t appearing on their curricula.
What was also clear, is that in leaving these students with only the choice of foreign literature to sate their reading for pleasure, we are encouraging an amazing loss of identity. So the truth is, whether or not Jamaicans don’t read, isn’t merely about encouraging a love of books. It is relevant to this country’s struggling economy, it is relevant to this country’s increasing loss of identity.
Let’s face it, whether or not the revolution is televised, there should be a book, electronic or otherwise, about it. It is high time we booked a revolution.