Growing up in Addis, books played a negligible role in my childhood. At school, literature was introduced to me as a necessary evil for success. At home, reading was an optional pastime – an unpopular substitute for television at best. Among friends, books only surfaced in conversations about dreadful activities. At a young age, my relationship with books – fiction and nonfiction alike – started off on the wrong foot. This narrative is not unique to me.
Among literate Ethiopians, the ability to read is generally perceived as a mere professional prerequisite rather than a tool for entertainment and personal growth. With an ever-growing number of affordable and accessible distractions, ranging from television shows to social media, books have been relegated to a thing of the past.
The lack of a strong reading culture is tragic in more ways than one. Works of literature allow us to exercise our imaginative capacities, helping foster creativity and open-mindedness while improving our linguistic aptitude. In fact, reading is one of the best ways to develop strong writing and analytical skills. Immersing oneself into a well-written book also offers stress relief and unparalleled tranquility, amid the fast-paced society we live in. While these are only a handful of the plethora of reasons to dedicate more time to literature, it has proven much easier said than done within the Ethiopian context.
Unlike academic preferences or career paths, an individual’s passion for reading should be instilled as early as possible. Reading for pleasure is a concept that parents, educators and other stakeholders are charged with inculcating children with. Various studies have shown that the younger one internalizes the need to read, the more likely they are to hold on to the habit as an adult, catapulting them to a successful life. On the other hand, establishing a solid reading habit becomes increasingly difficult with age, with distracting – but certainly less rewarding – diversions providing an alternative.
Stimulating a thriving reading culture in Ethiopia, among the youth in particular, will require a conscious and consolidated effort from all stakeholders. Expanding access to and awareness of adequately stocked public libraries, launching public service campaigns highlighting the merits of a well-read society and incentivizing reading for pleasure at home and at school would be exceptionally fruitful endeavors.
Economically, the stakes could not be higher. The World Literacy Foundation estimates the global cost of illiteracy to be over $1 trillion, with developing nations bearing the majority of the cost. Still, literacy alone will not suffice in the pursuit of cultivating an innovative people. Given its low, yet steadily increasing literacy rate, Ethiopia would benefit tremendously from promoting a culture in which books are looked up to, rather than looked back at. Just as many of us have effortlessly adopted the urge to constantly check our Facebook news feeds, so too can we make time to explore the world of literature.
On the bright side, a recent visit to the book center in Addis Ababa University’s main campus reassured me that a growing number of talented authors are putting pen to paper and publishing worthwhile reads. It is also encouraging that many initiatives, such as the Ethiopia Reads nonprofit organization, are investing in instilling necessary reading habits in young Ethiopians. The burden of weaving literature into our social fabric is on all of us: this is a plea for us to step away from our screens and grab a book.