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Whoever said if you want to hide money from black people you should put it inside a book clearly didn’t know a thing about the reading habits of Africans. Black people are bibliophiles and their reading patterns involve borrowing books permanently from friends and libraries. There is even a technical term for book thieves who take their habit to extremes; bibliokleptomania, defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as an abnormal compulsion to steal books.
So in our midst as Africans there are those who love books including the ones that belong to others. Actually there is an unwritten law in the black community that if one lends someone a book, it is not necessary to return it. It is as good as a giveaway. Recently I recommended a colleague a list of titles for his postgraduate thesis. The books are about the Drum writers of the 1950s. To his dismay, when he went to Joburg City Library he couldn’t find a single one. The librarian explained that some card-carrying borrowers are not in the habit of returning what are essentially public assets that should be shared by all readers.
During apartheid days this theft of books was regarded in certain circles as a politically heroic, praiseworthy act because, went the reasoning, black people were impoverished by the system and therefore could not afford these books. The biblioklepts of those years justified their deeds with ludicrous rationalisations such as ‘repossessing from the enemy’ or ‘liberating the people’s property’. It is to their credit that today some of these erstwhile book thieves are award-winning authors and respected officials who occupy high office in government departments and agencies.
A musician friend who is currently in Germany waxed lyrical after seeing a mini library in a city park. The rules for the users of the Uberlingen Book Shelf in Uberlingen are simple. You take a book of your choice and leave yours on the shelves in exchange. All genres are welcome – from cooking manuals to Goethe’s Faust. It is a self-service with no cameras or security guards to police the users; just a book exchange service for law-abiding bibliophiles. “This is really an eye-opener,” my friend enthused. “Imagine how we would accelerate literacy on our continent.”
I share his excitement. In Africa this book exchange won’t only accelerate literacy but it will improve readers’ general knowledge and their chances of being better educated. The problem is that it might take a century before Africans can have their Uberlingen experience. Such a well-stocked but unsupervised public amenity won’t survive a day even on church grounds. If it lasts until evening in these wintry nights the crime fiction novels, motivational books and thrillers will be welcome material for making fire for the homeless.
Another worst case scenario is that as a people who are in the habit of burning public property when we register discontent, such a treasure might become a casualty of service delivery protests. I grew up during the golden decades of comic books. My peers and older folks will recall comic heroes and heroines like Samson, Kid Cold, She, Tanya, Die Wit Tier, Die Swart Luiperd, Die Grensvegter, Chunkie Charlie and the like.
I consumed all those photo story magazines with relish. They fuelled my reading habits and most of those of my friends and schoolmates. They were staple because they were easily accessible even compared to James Hardley Chase’s cheap paperbacks. Yet I don’t remember my friends and I buying these treasures. But they were there and we claimed them as personal property. They were among popular literature that exchanged hands freely and rapidly. Libraries were unheard of luxuries in black communities. According to an American study, the Bible is the most stolen book in the West.
In my book, titles of the African Writers Series (AWS) should rank among the most stolen in South Africa – from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger. I am sure librarians across the country will vouch for me. When I decided to launch a jazz magazine, I lent a freelance writer who was passionate about the subject a brand new Amiri Baraka classic, Black Music (1968) to review. He never wrote the review and never returned the book. Those who are familiar with jazz literature will tell you that this text is a very rare treasure indeed.
Repeated attempts to have the book returned were met with excuses and false promises. When I shared this story with a mutual friend, he gave me a list of people in the journalism fraternity who didn’t deserve to be lent books. “They won’t return them and will simply deny any knowledge of the borrowing,” he said. “They can even get nasty if you insist that they owe you books. I have been their victim.” My point is not to paint my own in a negative light. I am simply illustrating the fact that those who think books are for hiding banknotes don’t know anything about Africans’ reading habits.
Sam Mathe is a South African journalist and publisher of Jazz Life Magazine. He is also the contributing author of South Africa’s Greatest Entrepreneurs (MME Media, 2010) and Brenda Fassie: I Am Not Your Weekend Special (Picador Africa, 2014).

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