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Jo'Burg Days: No Books To Read

So many books in the world - yet in South Africa there are children with no books to read. Barbara Durlacher is baffled by a conundrum.

“And so, children,” she said, folding up her papers, “I’m going to end now by saying to you all once again – if you want to write, you must read, and read and read!”

At once, a hand went up in the front row. “But Miss,” the lively little black face said, “We haven’t GOT anything to read!”

“What do you mean?” she replied, “You haven’t got anything to read? This really can’t be true, there’s always plenty to read EVERYWHERE. An old newspaper lying by the side of the road, magazines thrown away by somebody, books that are being given away – you can always find something to read somewhere.’’

Warming to her subject, she had an idea. “But I’ll tell you what. I’ll write to some of my friends and see if they have any leftover books they can let you have; I’ve got lots of friends and they’ve all got hundreds of books. I’ll ask each one to give us five books and before you know it, we’ll have a wonderful collection for you to read.”

Arriving home, and fired by her crusade, she promptly emailed all the people she knew who she felt might have collections of books they would be prepared to part with.

After a few weeks with no replies, she emailed them again, and then later, another email, and then another. But nobody replied.

What does this mean about a society and the generation of young people who are growing up, supposedly in our care, who will one day be the nation’s leaders? What will they know of the world around them, of life, of history, of everything that has been achieved by the generations who have gone before them if they don’t read? What will they have to base their judgements on when, as it inevitably will, the time comes for them to make major life decisions?

I don’t have any answers, I don’t have sufficient knowledge or experience in this kind of a conundrum to even begin to find an answer to this problem. It is too big, too complicated and too fraught with social and political hazards for there to be an easy solution. Perhaps the churches can help – I heard once about the Methodist Church who regularly received crates and crates of books of all kinds on every subject from the ordinary people of Japan, all costs paid. But whether that wonderful public-spirited act of love and caring is still continuing I have no idea.

But when one thinks of all the used and second hand books that clutter up the shelves, fill the boxes of second-hand books stalls week after week, returning to be stored in somebody’s garage until they are hauled out the next week to sit, neglected and ignored on the charity stalls, until eventually they are burnt or pulped, it certainly seems a shame that they can’t be put to better use.

Wouldn’t it be nice if South Africans could do this for their own children, for those little ones, ’pink, blue, green or purple’” as the popular saying goes, who are growing up so fast, under such adverse circumstances? Some live in squatter camps, others in tenement flats without electricity or clean water, but one day, perhaps they will enjoy a better life, and a life which could have been immeasurably enriched by what they have learnt from reading?

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