Book Chat | On Being ‘Well Read’ (part 2)

Welcome back to Part 2 – the final installment of this book chat!

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When you hear the words – ‘well read’, what comes to mind? What does it mean to be ‘well read’?

From my observations over the years, I realized being ‘well read’ was synonymous with being knowledgable in the ‘Classics’ – which typically comprise the works of English writers like William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Joseph Conrad, Charlotte Brontë ; American writers like John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald ; Canadian writers like Margaret Atwood‎, Lucy Maud Montgomery and a myriad of other books by WHITE writers.

Image via Arao Ameny’s Instagram

The concept of being ‘well read’ is very subjective and personal. In my opinion, there’s more to being ‘well read’ than being well-versed in the work of white writers or books we were forced to read in English Literature class.

I wanted to know how other readers defined being ‘well read’, so I asked some of my favorite readers and writers I follow and interact with via Twitter, Goodreads and Instagram. In this book chat, three of my favorite readers and writers will enlighten us on what it means to be ‘well read’, with some recommendations on which authors and/or books we should indulge in to be considered ‘well read’, per their views on the concept.

Enjoy!

 

Efo Dela is a book lover I frequently see at book readings and other bookish events here in Accra. He’s an avid reader and writes poetry as well. I always look forward to reading Efo’s (funny) opinions on Twitter, so I just had to include him in this conversation. Check out what being ‘well read’ means to him:

  • What does being ‘well read’ mean to you? 

Being well read means being able to enjoy a wide spectrum of writing genres. For me good writing is good writing it doesn’t matter the genre. I will read it. I’ve found myself reading academic work unrelated to what I do just because the writing is good. I don’t know if it’s because I have an interest in many topics that I read so wide or if I have an interest in many things because I read wide.

  • Which books and/or authors should be on our reading lists, given your take on what it means to be ‘well read’?

Born a Crime – Trevor Noah

Akata Witch – Nnedi Okarafor

Prey – Michael Crichton

The Last Day – Glenn Kleier

Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth – Warsan Shire

A Song of Ice and Fire (6 books) – George RR Martin

The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu

Go Tell it on the Mountain – James Baldwin

Ghana (the autobiography of Kwame Nkrumah) – Kwame Nkrumah

Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

 


Zaynab has a way of making reading look so sexy, via her photographs on Instagram, where she goes by – @bookminimalist. Zaynab, who is based in Nigeria, is a passionate reader and a popular Bookstagrammer (which is the Bookish community of Instagram) who promotes African literature through her photos and fearless commentary on the books she showcases. Check out her views on the concept of being ‘well read’:

  • What does being ‘well read’ mean to you?

What it means to be well-read? Well read? I have to be honest this question gave me sleepless nights.

The week you sent the question I wrote: “it meant reading all genres; science fiction, romance, speculative fiction, etc. Reading your favourite genre alone or classics alone doesn’t make you a Well-read person.”  I just realised how naive this answer was days later.

And then I swapped it to, Well-read means reading books from all corners of the world. North Africa, Indian Ocean African Islands, Middle East, reading books published in every region in the world. And this sounded too pompous, and very bombastic. Does this mean someone who lives in a village in Nigeria who doesn’t have access to some of these books is not well read?

And then minutes ago, it changed to reading at least 10 books on the ‘100 books you should read before you die’ list. Haha.

Now writing this, I suddenly had an epiphany, being well read should not only be about the number of books, or how many translated works you have read (even though I think this is important too), being well read is reading at a level in which you digest and absorb what you’re reading and are able to incorporate it into your life. Reading in such a way that allows you to think and converse about the human experience intelligently.

Being well read means becoming a better human being from something you have read from Toni Morrison, from an anecdote you saw in Wole Soyinka’s book. Speaking out against corruption, bad governance after reading Achebe, realising your silence in the face of evil is cooperating with evil itself after reading Baldwin.

Speaking out against sexual assault, racism, after drowning yourself in Angelou. Ranting against those who kill intellectuals and writers after reading a Sontag. Speaking up for women who are hated by their community and families after read a Flora Nwapa.  Speaking up for children who lost their innocence after reading a Danticat.

Being well read means reading thoughtfully, by engaging with the world, breaking away from horrendous tradition and questioning dreadful established ideas.

This is what being well read means to me.

  • Which books and/or authors should be on our reading lists, given your take on what it means to be ‘well read’?

I have more than 50 Books I have enjoyed reading this year but I am going to mention the ones written by African women on this list (because they don’t get hyped enough):

The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela, Longthroat Memoirs, by Yemisi Aribisala, The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso, Butterfly Fish by Irenosen Okojie and Kintu by Jennifer Makumbi.

 


Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire is a powerhouse. I first encountered Bwesigye last year when I was in correspondence with him as the Editorial and Partnerships Director for the Writivism Festival (a Kampala-based initiative that promotes African Literature). Since then, I always look forward to his passionate threads on Twitter which mostly aim to decolonize the mind. He’s currently a graduate student of English Language and Literature at Cornell University. Enjoy his thoughts on the concept of being ‘well read’:

  • What does being ‘well read’ mean to you?

This is a very hard question. It is hard because the response speaks volumes about the person answering it, than it does about anyone else, or about the idea of reading itself. Because I am a graduate student of English Language and Literature, this question is even more difficult to answer. Do I want to expose myself this way? While we were being told about preparing for our PhD Qualifying Exam, one of the three exams an English student does before they graduate, our instructor encouraged us to select books that make one sound ridiculous if they are English grads and have not read them.

We went through a confession moment where some members of our class mentioned the books they are embarrassed to say they haven’t read because it is expected that everyone has read those books. You get the picture. If you are an English Major, or grad, surely, you have read Shakespeare, right? That type of thing. The greatest books. To use a more academic term, the canonical texts from various periods.

These books permeate the English language itself. New words have been created from them. There is another word I learnt late in life, and I can’t pronounce with my Rukiga inflected accent. The word is ‘zeitgeist’. The books that capture the ‘defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history’ are what some versions of well read expect one to have read. I am not a fan of English Literature in that way. In the way it is used as the standard, given its history of not only exclusion, but active dehumanisation and destruction of other ways of being, other literatures, other cultures.

Because in secondary school, when I studied Literature in English, we were forced to read Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, RL Stevenson, DH Lawrence, Jane Austen, Robert Bolt, Arthur Miller, Ernest Hemingway, and all those types of people, my experience of their work has become one of resentment. I after all attended secondary school in Uganda, a country that celebrates having attained independence in 1962 but still holds onto these colonial notions of what it means to be ‘well read’.

Operating in what Mukoma wa Ngugi has called the ‘English metaphysical empire’, where the language and the world it makes possible in one’s imagination, means that one can’t run away from these writers, their books and their influence. The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde shows up in conversation as something whose meaning everyone listening, knows. And so, if one does not, they have to Google to understand it. To the colonised, in the metaphysical sense, familiarity with the English canon is one way to understand what it means to be ‘well read’. Because most spaces in which we operate, (speaking from my position as an aspiring academic whose dominant language of engagement is English), are yet to be decolonised, it means that however much one hates the ways in which one experiences the English canon as violence, one can’t wish away the fact that it is what dominates as the idea of being ‘well read’. So in one way, the idea of being ‘well read’ and what it instantly means is something I experience as violence.

Despite my positioning in the imperial and colonial structure that defines being ‘well read’ in a Eurocentric and limited way, I am interested in small acts of subversion. Your question about what being ‘well read’ means to me is an important subversive act because it centres me, as the one determining what being well read means. I am currently torn between an anti colonial approach and something else, for which I am still figuring out ways to define.

So, on one hand I will say, that for me being ‘well read’ means being well versed with an alternative, a subversive archive. This anti colonial approach unfortunately focuses unduly on responding and countering the Eurocentric colonial and imperial framework. And so, being well read here would mean being familiar with the works of resistance to colonialism. This somewhat implies being familiar with the colonial archive to begin with. The binarism. To know black, you must know white, because black is the negation of white, type of thing (thank you Fanon for the language).

I am still thinking about a radical decentering of Europe and colonialism and imperialism. This would mean going beyond the resistance. The resistance is important for showing us that we matter, that we can write, that we have, and can create a counter-archive. What does it mean to be well read without the anxiety of creating a counter archive? What does the counter archive become when it is no longer countering the Eurocentric colonial and imperial archive? How would I understand being ‘well read’ in that space where I am the centre and not necessarily the opposite of. What would being well read mean, in that space? I have no answer right now. Ultimately, being well read depends on how one is reading. What they are reading, may be not much as how they are reading. I mean, in 2017: some people read Conrad and miss all the colonial and imperialist bullshit in his work, so go figure.

  • Which books and/or authors should be on our reading lists, given your take on what it means to be ‘well read’?

Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu. Kintu is important because it is the book and Makumbi, is the author that has pushed me into imagining what it could mean to centre ourselves in our work without an anxiety to write back to empire. What about our own worlds? What is there in our own worlds? Kintu is one clear example of an imagination that ultimately pays due homage to those who resisted and built a counter archive but is continuing from where they stopped by centering an archive that sees ourselves without reducing us to countering Europe.

Panashe Chigumadzi’s work, the non fiction and post Sweet Medicine fiction – (look out for her forthcoming books, aren’t I privileged to have had a look at both), also take me to that world. Some of the essays in the non fiction book have been published online, and Small Deaths, a short story from the forthcoming fiction book was published in Transition. Panashe, perhaps, more than Makumbi acknowledges and deals head on with Imperialism and its continued violence, but from a centre where we are the subject, and without the anxieties of building a counter archive. In the new archive that was yesterday’s counter, and today’s centre, Panashe’s work reminds us of the need to continue resisting an imperialism that mutates.

Everything bell hooks. I do not have to give reasons why. Do I?

And Audre Lorde. I know I also do not have to give reasons, just as bell hooks above.

I follow most of the people whose thoughts give me life and some of these aren’t necessarily contained in books, but some are, people like Grace Musila, people like Dina Ligaga, people like Caroline Mose, people like Wandia Njoya, people like Mshai Mwangola, people like Keguro Macharia, and I just now realised all these are Kenyan, so I guess, follow the Kenyan public intellectuals of today, the ones who are on Twitter.


Special thanks to Leslie Reese, David DaCosta, Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed, Zaynab, Efo Dela & Bwesigye for taking the time to engage with us in this book chat series. It’s been enlightening! THANK YOU 🙂