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‘Biggest deterrent for readers is Internet’

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

“There’s not a culture of reading here,” my editor told me. 

The evidence suggests she is right. Trinis like to write and love to talk, but they don’t read.

I never thought I would miss the sight of rows of London tube passengers sitting silently with faces buried in the latest bestsellers. Though I disapproved of their mass-market literary tastes, all destined to be made into coma-inducing films—Fifty Cups of Earl Grey, The Girl Who Kicked An Owl’s Face, Memoirs of a Gay Shah, The Hungry Hungry Hippo Games, Harry Potter and the Disarmament of the Chemical Weapons Factory—they were at least reading. 

They held promise, perhaps, of greater things: today, Hogwarts, tomorrow, Wildfell Hall. 

But, here in the Caribbean, you never see anybody reading a book. As a result, there are virtually no bookshops. 

The outstanding Paper Based in St Ann’s has everything a reader could want from Caribbean writing, for children and adults. Keith Khan’s on Frederick Street is more mainstream and international. But, secondhand bookshops? The only one of note—Asgar Ali’s, on Duke Street—burned down last August. 

In London bookshops are also closing—replaced by Amazon—but still every high street has charity shops selling secondhand novels. 

But the biggest deterrent for future generations of readers is surely the Internet. 

Digital screens have replaced words on paper. Screens filled with tedious articles with headlines ending “...You’ll Be Blown Away By What Happened Next.” Screens filled with images of vanity, indolence, material wealth. Society saturated with pictures on Instagram and Facebook. Social media has replaced TV as the novel’s great nemesis. 

With all the posting, sharing, liking, scrolling, commenting, tagging and adding, people find no time to sit quietly and enter the imaginary worlds of William Boyd, George Eliot, Dostoeyevsky, Derek Walcott, Hemingway, Ayn Rand, Hanif Kureishi, Ben Okri, Buchi Emecheta, VS Naipaul, Ian McEwan or Margaret Drabble. 

Reality has taken over. Our own lives and those of our peers are more valued than the made-up lives of characters. All it took to make this narcissism-enabling leap was technology. One sip and we were hooked. 

But perhaps there is hope for books in the digital age. Despite my cynicism, the Kindle might encourage reading, even if the look, feel and smell of a paperback can never be replicated in a plastic LCD-screened rectangle. 

Is it that reading requires too much effort? Are its benefits too intangible? How does the metaphysical nature of plot and narrative translate into reward for young people? 

There is a perception that reading requires effort and, yes, it is harder than passively surfing the internet. But, like all things if repeated, it becomes an effortless habit. 

Like languages, swimming or riding a bike, it’s better to start young. 

Get children involved in Nalis’ Storytime sessions and Bocas Lit Fest’s year-round school outreach programmes. 

And yet, here in Trinidad, I’ve struggled to read. I don’t know if it’s the heat, noise or just laziness, but increasingly the book is put down and the iPad picked up. 

The bookshops I spoke of in London do not, sadly, contain Caribbean literature. The good writers in the region are unknown abroad, even the Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott. 

Monique Roffey, a Trinidad-born Englishwoman who has achieved success and brought her interpretation of Caribbean life into the British consciousness, recently wrote a blog enthusing about the current crop of Caribbean writers. She put names out there in front of people who would otherwise never hear them.

St Lucian writer Vladimir Lucien savaged her for this in a blog accusing her of ignorance and presumptuousness. 

The blog contained fancy words like “synecdoche” and “rotundity,” and Lucien clearly felt his criticism was intellectual and justified. But it wasn’t, it was trolling on a grand scale. 

Why can’t Roffey point out which young Caribbean writers she likes, if it benefits them? 

Roffey has a voice in Britain and says positive, honest things. If they don’t tie in with Lucien's and other local writers’ “authentic” understanding of Caribbean history then perhaps that is because her interpretations were intended so a British audience could digest them. 

Unfortunately, British people don’t know or care about Caribbean history, less still literature. Less still do they want the “profound” engagement Lucien calls for. 

It was not a thesis she wrote but a blog for an online bookshop. If it had been a thesis, nobody here would have read it anyway.


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