Book Chat | On being ‘well read’ (part 1)

Hey everyone!

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 of 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 was curious to find out 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!

 

Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed is an African book lover who’s the creator behind the blog – Bookshy, where she’s been blogging about African literature since 2011. Her wonderful African Book Covers (ABC) Tumblr page, which celebrates African book cover art inspired my book covers showcase here at African Book Addict! Check out her thoughts on being ‘well read’:

  • What does being ‘well read’ mean to you?
The first word that popped into my head when I read the question was ‘informed’, then I thought ‘very informed’, but that word (like ‘well read’) can take on many different meanings.

By ‘informed’ I mean that the reader knows a lot about many things because they have been able to read a lot.

Similar to a well-travelled person, who has been to way too many places. In that sense, a well-read person has read way too many books and so is informed by so many things.

That was my initial thought.

As I kept on thinking, I felt that ‘well read’ is pretty subjective. How many books does it take to become well read? Also, you might be well-read in one particular genre, but not in every single genre ever.

You might be well-read in your field of research. For example, ask me about gender and urbanisation or about paid domestic work and I’ll probably be able to list the key authors and what their arguments are. Ask me about contemporary African literature (in English) and I would like to think I’d able to hold my own with other ‘well-read’ African lit readers. Ask me about Literature from Ethiopia in Amharic (don’t bother), about anything IT or tech-related (seriously, don’t bother).

So, I wouldn’t take well-read purely as the number of books you’ve read since you started reading. I would take it as being very informed as a result of the number of books you’ve read. I also wouldn’t necessarily see well read as being well read in one genre, but being well read across a range: say, fiction, history, non-fiction, art etc.

Although I try not to be prescriptive as to what that entails, a lot of the ‘well-read’ people I know have read the classics, read a lot of non-fiction, as well as newspapers and magazines, and a variety of fiction.

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

Tough and I wouldn’t even know which 5 to select, but I would definitely include Buchi Emecheta on my list and bell hooks. Currently reading Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” so would include that. Sylvia Tamale’s “African Sexualities: A Reader”. My list could go on and on. So I’ll leave it at 4 and leave the 5th one blank – as there are many possibilities.

 


David DaCosta is a Goodreads friend and author who’s views I admire. Since 2002, he’s written an autobiography, two novellas set in Jamaica, a book of poetry, and is currently working on his debut novel. Whenever I’m looking for my next read by a Caribbean writer, I usually like to pick books that DaCosta has reviewed on Goodreads. I appreciate his critical book reviews and hope you all enjoy his thoughts on the concept of being ‘well read’:

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

‘Well read’ encompasses the spectrum of various mediums of writing, whether literary, newspaper, magazine etc.

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

As a person who has alternated between living in Jamaica and Toronto for decades now, I have a natural leaning toward Caribbean literature. Earl Lovelace is the greatest author the Caribbean has produced. “The Dragon Can’t Dance” and “The Wine of Astonishment” are masterpieces. Trinidad & Tobago holds Earl Lovelace in high esteem, as they should.

Haitians should hoist Edwidge Danticat high on their shoulders. Her output over the past decade has been stellar. “Create Dangerously” and “Claire of the Sea Light” are both first-rate contributions to the literary world, each representing the best in fiction and nonfiction. Danticat’s latest offering “The Art of Death” further exemplifies her significant talents.

Octavia E. Butler is the definition of genius. I’ve had the privilege of reading five selections of her work (Xenogenesis trilogy, “Parable of the Sower” and “Fledgling”). The common thread that connects them all is a frighteningly authentic sense of realism. As an author, she really takes you there with well researched narratives and immaculate character development. It always amazes me how a black woman became the greatest author in a white dominated genre like Science Fiction. May she rest in peace.

I’ve read my share of works by African authors, mostly Nigerian. “Kehinde” by Buchi Emecheta remains my favorite. The novel truly represents female empowerment in its purest form. Having been raised by a strong woman, I gravitated to this particular protagonist’s character arc. I literally just learned that Miss Emecheta passed away earlier this year. May you rest peacefully my sister.

I’d be remiss If I didn’t make mention of author Uwem Akpan. I stumbled across his powerful collection of stories from the continent one day in 2008 while perusing the ‘Recommended’ shelf at a local library in Toronto. “Say You’re One of Them” stared back at me, daring me to pick it up. Taking its challenge, I did so, studying the front and back covers and eventually checking the book out. Once I began reading, I was hooked. The fact that it explored various countries throughout Africa made it all the more engaging. I can’t say enough about the exceptional level of writing contained within. Oprah eventually introduced the book to the world by making it an official Book club selection the following year.

 


Leslie Reese is the curator of the blog – Folklore & Literacy, where she muses on reading, writing, people, and culture. I enjoy Leslie’s thoughtful pieces as well as her love of literature and occasional book reviews that go beyond the books and storylines, but delve into her past experiences, her skilled photography, her appreciation for first edition book covers and artwork. Leslie is also a loyal visitor and commenter here on African Book Addict! which I deeply appreciate! Check out her thoughts on being ‘well read’:

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

I kind of love this question, and I would probably answer it differently for ever year of my reading life!  Today, I’m going to say that being well-read means having an insatiable appetite for reading books that:

(1) nourish my imagination and spirit and tickle my “funny bone;”

(2) challenge me, that teach me things, and make me feel compassion for myself and others;

(3) make me feel connected to my ancestors, as well as connected to people with whom I never expected to share an affinity;

(4) inspire me to be more of myself;

(5) make me feel awestruck/ “blow my mind!”

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

The only way I can not be overwhelmed trying to answer this question is to select a sampling of works that made me feel awestruck/“blew my mind!” on my first encounter, and continue to feel fresh and striking anytime I open their pages to read from them, again.   

Sula by Toni Morrison

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I Love Myself When I Am Laughing and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive (A Zora Neale Hurston Reader) edited by Alice Walker

The Collected Poetry of Aimé Césaire translated and with notes by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith

A People’s History of the United States 1492 – present by Howard Zinn (1999 edition)

Art on My Mind by bell hooks

The Book of Embraces by Eduardo Galeano

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

What does being ‘well read’ mean to YOU?

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Book chat | The Sankofa Book Club

Are you a member of a book club? If you haven’t found the right book club or you haven’t had time to seek one out where ever you are in the world, I introduce to you a super rich and engaging DIGITAL book club, in the form of a podcast – The Sankofa Book Club.

[collage created by African Book Addict! ; images via The Sankofa Book Club]

I stumbled upon The Sankofa Book Club when I was participating in a book chat (on Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi) on Twitter, last year. I resonated with some of the responses the co-founder – Akua, was tweeting and decided to check out the podcast via iTunes. The Sankofa Book Club is a digital book club with a focus on African literature. The co-hosts are of Ghanaian descent who engage in intelligent and honest conversations around books I adore. The podcast is currently 10 episodes deep and my favorite episodes so far have been their discussions on Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and Everyday is for the Thief by Teju Cole.

Enjoy the conversation I had with The Sankofa Book Club team where we discuss their origin story, their favorite writers of African descent, favorite snacks to indulge in while reading and more!


  1. What’s the story behind the book club’s name – The ‘Sankofa’ Book Club?

Sankofa is an Adinkra symbol – Adinkra is a collection of symbols from the Akan tradition in Ghana. You can see the symbol incorporated in our logo. The term “sankofa” translates from Twi as “return and get it” and it symbolizes the importance of learning from your past. As we were thinking about what to call the book club, this just seemed so apt. The co-founders are both Ghanaian and we want this book club to be a platform for people to learn about Africa – especially those of us Africans born and raised outside of Africa.


  1. Who’s behind the scenes of The Sankofa Book Club? Briefly tell us about the team members and co-hosts. 

We’re a small team of three. Akua and Mel are co-hosts of the podcast and co-founders of the book club. We focus on producing the podcast and growing our community. Sam is our curator – she researches the books and allocates them every month. However, we are looking to grow, so get in touch if you’re interested!


  1. What was the inspiration for starting a digital book club in podcast form? Will there be book club meet-ups in the future where the team is based?

The inspiration was several different thoughts popping up in my head in no particular order:

  • I (Akua) worked on podcasts through work in digital marketing.
  • It was an exciting new media but like most things in this world, it was whitewashed.
  • Mel and I have thought-provoking conversation anyway.
  • I really like African lit and wished I could join a book club like that.
  • I don’t live in London, don’t have the time or energy to do that in London.
  • Why are we limiting ourselves to London?
  • Let’s do a podcast on African lit.
  • It may as well be a book club.

We love that we’re digital and interacting with people all over the world and we don’t want to lose that. However, a live recording in London will definitely be happening in the near future.


  1. How do you decide on which books to read? Why focus on African Literature?

Sam does research into the themes, what people are currently reading and uses that choose a book each month. It helps us stay relevant and prevents us from being repetitive.

Africa is more than the world’s charity case, and who better to tell the true story of Africa than Africans. That’s why we focus on African literature. We want to hear a different narrative. We want to be a different narrative.


  1. Who is your target audience? How has the reception been, after the 10 episodes (and counting) that are available?

Anyone interested in Africa, literature and/or both! What we’d really love is for people who don’t feel connected to the continent to use this as a relaxed and fun way to learn, or just read something different. There’s loads of brilliant African literature out there getting very little attention. We want to change that.

The reception of SBC has been really positive. It’s interesting to see that a lot of our audience is actually in Africa, who just appreciate the discussion.



6. Random Bookish Facts:

  • a) How do you like your books – Hardcovers, paperbacks, audiobooks or e-books?

Akua – Paperback.

Mel – Paperback mostly, hardback if it’s affordable; not a fan of audiobooks.

Sam – Paperback until quite recently. E-books are more handy and make my commute less boring and bulky.

••

  • b) Do you usually read – New books, used books, borrowed/stolen books (from friends) or library books?

Akua – A brand new book from Waterstones.

Mel – Usually brand new books but I’m also a lover of borrowed/stolen books.

Sam – Definitely new books (I do steal a lot of book lists though).

••

  • c) What is/are your favorite book genre(s)? (Poetry, thrillers, romance, short stories, literary fiction, non-fiction etc.)

Akua – Poetry. It’s simple but deep.

Mel – Thrillers. I enjoy the suspense and drama.

Sam – Historical Fiction! I love a good mystery too.

••

  • d) Favorite snacks/beverages to indulge in while reading?

Akua – Biscuits or cake.

Mel – Peppermint tea all day everyday.

Sam – Potato Chips and chocolate. There’s something about the crunch that keeps me going.


  1. Who are your top three favorite African writers, and why?

Akua – Her Majesty Queen Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chinua Achebe and Afua Hirsch. The first two are authors of my favourite books so by default my favourite writers. Afua Hirsch is a journalist, half English, half Ghanaian. When I see a cutting edge, non-conformist article on current affairs, I just know she wrote it. Such an intelligible Black British voice! I so appreciate her. She has a book coming out in January 2018.


Mel – Chimamanda Ngozi and Chigozie Obioma. I’m still on the hunt for my third favourite African author. Chimamanda is amazing for her attention to detail and empowering me as a women and an individual of African descent. Chigozie is special for his gift of reflecting his literary influences in his novels. He also has a knack for eloquently describing a mere moment, allowing the reader to see it from an in-depth perspective.


Sam – I’m pretty old school so I’m going to say Ama Ata Aidoo because of her style and her pioneering work in African Literature with regards to female independence and empowerment. Wole Soyinka next because I love his sense of humour and the wisdom in his writing. I will have to concede that more recently I too have developed a soft spot for Chimamanda Ngozi. She just embodies everything. She is intelligent, eloquent and still relatable. She has a way of dissecting literally all things that matter to young black women so plainly yet extremely intuitive.


  1. Finally, what can listeners and readers look forward to in the future for The Sankofa Book Club?

Akua – Amazing guests on the podcast and more interaction with our book club members! We know we have a consistent audience out there, we see you and we love you!

Mel – I’d like to echo what Akua has said and add that listeners can also expect that we will continue to encourage their inner book worm.

Sam – More exciting and representative books!!


Catch up with The Sankofa Book Club: Website | Soundcloud  | Twitter | Instagram