I can tell I look: either really good or really bad because, the stares. I balance the attention like a pot of water on my head and make it inside the mat. My sister and my cousin sit together and I take a window seat. I realize that my legs peeping through my blue shorts will have to touch the seat. I try not to think about dermatitis and whatnot, pull out a book in the hope that whoever sits next to me understands the code of conduct. Book in hand means don’t talk to me.
It is a man, my seatmate. I glance at him just to catch enough in case the police question me about him. I do that a lot. Perfect my alibis, study people in restaurants just in case, keep receipts for a little longer than necessary. I don’t know yet, the in case of what. He has a red cap on and his teeth are yellow. He smiled at me. I returned the gesture.
“Are you reading for research?” he asks skipping the hello and who are yous. I shake my head without looking up even though I am rereading a sentence now.
“So you just read?” I nod and reread the sentence a third time.
“Wah, mimi husoma to memes.” I shut the book because sasa ntado?
He asks for my number, pays my fare, and alights at Westlands. My sister leans over and makes a remark about my guest. We proceed.
When we arrive at our final destination, we get into conversation and I mention the impossibility of my mingling with someone who only reads memes. Everyone immediately agrees because this is the cultic conglomerate of readers, but we haven’t thought of it as such until right this moment. The philosopher amongst us then asks if we will only ever be in society with people who read and cast out anyone who doesn’t. We vigorously agree, and go on to add that there are various ways of learning and acquiring information, which we all implement, but reading is core.
That was last year.
Fast-forward to today and I have allowed myself to actually be open-minded and talked to a lot more people whose relationship with books is illicit in their minds. We have had great conversations and talked about life and experiences and I have concluded that while reading elevates the mind, and will never not be important, it doesn’t mean that people who don’t read are incapable of having a conversation. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t learning in other spheres of life. Sure, there is knowledge you can only acquire through reading a wide range of literature, but you get?
I have over time, secluded the company of the non-literary community. So much for being open-minded! Readers gravitate towards readers, bond over book covers, characters, and authors. We like learning about new books we should read, or what other books we would enjoy reading now that we liked Alice Walker. We collect books we might die before getting to, and then ensure they don’t ever leave our vicinity. We even wake up from our sleep because we haven’t seen xyz book in a while, only to dismantle the shelf and realize it is right there, by your bedside, where it has been for the past six months! Our social media algorithm brings us beautiful libraries around the world, snippets of poetry, book events in the neighbourhood and in countries we might never visit and whatnot. And that is somewhat close-minded, except, you are locked in a different room.
And so while I so boldly claimed I could not associate with a non-reader that September afternoon, eating chicken curry and rice, I retract that statement, and erase the mindset. I open my mind and my presence to all sorts of people and without judgement or opinion, listen to their experiences, their lessons, and their life. I might go home and make a character of them, but this is a vow to listen and to accept, to not just claim to be tolerant, but be tolerant. Non-readers are people too! and they have lived this life and faced the challenges that the literary community has. Well, maybe not their favourite author not releasing another book (What’s up to Khaled Hosseini?), but you know, they are people too!
It is very cultic, the reading culture and the reading community, and it not just in this country. It is a global cult. The debate on e-books and audiobooks being inferior to hard copies, the are you really reading if you are not holding the book in your hands. We move about feeling a little better than everyone else. Classics vs contemporary. E-books vs hardcopy. Fiction vs nonfiction. Poetry vs prose. Shame on us readers! How dare we create such a divide in a hobby that is supposed to be beautiful and cohesive!
And the book ownership! I am considering putting a sign up on my library that says ‘do not approach!’ what is that about? Reading books and hoarding them as if the knowledge will disappear if you lent the book to someone.
Anyways, read a book though. Maybe even order mine here nuriakenya.com.
PS: I am still not going to lend you a book. But with love. Does that help?
I am on your team, struggling reader and non-reader. I wish I could say I understand. But I see you. You probably didn’t even get through this post. I still see you though.