The book reading culture surges during lockdowns

Elsewhere in the world, research has shown that reading books has surged during lockdown. In the UK for instance, a study conducted by Nielsen with a sample of 1000 uncovered that two in five adults read more books during lockdown. As Greater Gaborone is on the second phase of lockdown, what is the reading trend like in the capital city, what kind of literature is the nation consuming, did the inaugural nationwide lockdown impact on Batswana’s reading culture- rated lowly, in any meaningful way? GP Online asks Kenanao Phele of Gaborone Book Festival- whose aim is to promote and encourage the culture of reading in Botswana

GP: In other parts of the world, research has shown that reading has surged during lockdown. I haven’t found any study to that effect here at home, but during the initial countrywide lockdown- reading and requests for books to read seemed to have formed a sizable part of social media discussions (I hope it wasn’t just my circle). I guess in the absence of research, it’s safe to assume Botswana’s reading patterns picked during lockdown. What is your take on this?

PHELE: We haven’t done any research as to whether there was a spike in reading. But we also noticed the request for books. What I also found disturbing was the distribution of PDF versions which is also piracy and does not bring any value to the author.

GP: As Gaborone Book Festival, what reading trends have you observed during the inaugural lockdown, and the current Greater Gaborone one as far as reading habits are concerned?

PHELE: I think readers continued to read whilst some picked their mojo back. Research shows that worldwide cooking, exercise challenges took centre stage especially on social media. There was an occasional book challenge here and there but not in the same scale as cooking or exercising. As already mentioned, we haven’t done any research about this.

GP: If people are reading- what is it that they are reading?

PHELE: I honestly have no idea! Motivation and religious or should I say Christianity books are very popular even outside of a pandemic in Botswana. I don’t if this is applicable to Botswana, but from my observations on social media and people I interact with, there is a spike and genuine interest in African authors, in the continent or in the diaspora. Stars are literally born daily who are making waves across the continent or the world.

GP: What are the benefits of reading during this lockdown period?

PHELE: Reading shouldn’t be confined to the pandemic. It should be encouraged as a lifelong discipline in both adults and children. Right now, where we are confined to our homes, books are a great source of entertainment, education or escapism.

GP: Is there specific literature or content that you would like to recommend for Greater Gaborone folks? Or beyond, as the whole country is currently affected by psychosocial implications of COVID-19.

PHELE: I urge Batswana to seek out local authors across all genres, to know them, read them and buy their books. Our literary scene is very small but we have some exceptional writers. Like I have said already, books are a source of entertainment, education or escapism and one needs to keep themselves busy during lockdown and after.

GP: Which five authors (a mix of locals and international ones) would you recommend, and why?

PHELE: I like books that talks positively and highly of Africa and debunk the myth that staying and leaving abroad is better than home, sometimes it’s not the case. On issues of migration and home, I highly recommend Behold the Dreamer by Imbolo Mbue  (Cameroon) as well as Helon Habila’s Travellers (Nigeria) I am a sucker for history ; both factual and historical fiction are my favourite genres. So I highly recommend Petina Gappah – (Zambia) Out of Darkness, Shining Light and Lauri Kubuitsile – (Botswana) The Scattering. Donal Molosi (Botswana) has written an important book – Dear Uptight African which should be recommended reading for students and everyone in the education ecosystem across the continent. Botswana’s political history is usually told from a one sided story so I also highly recommend Motsamai Mpho’s biography, though extremely hard to find. My best career book I love now is Dear Madam President, written by Hillary Clinton’s chief communications officer when she was running for presidency. It’s an essential read for women who are ambitious. I know you said five but….

GP: How has technology changed reading habits in your view? It’s mostly viewed as a double edged sword -with Kindle and other e-readers commended for making reading convenient while one the other hand, social media is labelled as a barrier to reading. What’s your take on this one?

PHELE: Social media is a great tool which when used effectively opens a door of opportunities to connect with anyone, anywhere. It has broken barriers in business and networking. However, social media is also time consuming. It’s important to plug off from time to time and just breathe. What is important to me is that people are reading, whether from a gadget or physical book it doesn’t matter. Just read!

GP: Do people in Botswana prefer reading e-books or physical versions? Does the format matter, does it have any bearing on reading habits?

PHELE: We haven’t done any research on preferences, so am clueless. What is important to me is that people are reading, whether from a gadget or physical book it doesn’t matter. We need to have more people reading in Botswana, which doesn’t seem to be the case at the moment.

GP: What is a good reader, and makes one?

PHELE: Discipline is very important. You need to dedicate time to reading and to buying books. It’s critical to make time to read and be dedicated to finishing a book, or you won’t get anywhere without commitment.

GP: You are an avid reader yourself. What books are you currently indulging in?

PHELE: I am going through a bad patch currently and my reading is not great. Yes, it happens to the best of us. Am currently buying more books than reading them. I recently read It’s Not about the Burqa: Muslim Women on Faith, Feminism, Sexuality and Race essays of Muslim women sharing their life experiences. I am big on issues of diversity and inclusion so it’s a great read. When am going through a bad reading period, I usually go back to my favourite books. So I recently re-read my favourite chapters of The Travellers, some parts of Niq Mhlongo’s Soweto Under The Apricot Tree. Also had a work event reflecting on the life of Sir Ketumile Masire, so I went through his biography.

GP: What are the perks of being a reader?

PHELE: Being informed, learning, empathy, reading helps to be open minded. Also children pick behaviours from adults, so children of readers are also likely to be readers.