Making reading sexy really grabs attention books need

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. / Pascal Le Segretain/ GETTY IMAGES
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. / Pascal Le Segretain/ GETTY IMAGES

In SA we have a reading problem. Millions of South Africans, through no fault of their own, cannot read. Inevitably, these illiterate people get marginalised from most debates that take the country forward.

Then we have semiliterate people who can recognise letters and words written down. They can even pronounce many of the words. But they cannot make much sense out of these words when they are combined into sentences and paragraphs.

The third category is generally referred to as alliterates. These are people who can read fluently, but simply won't read. Unfortunately, many people in this category sit in decision-making positions in the corporate world and also in government.

They would rather spend time watching TV or playing online games than reading. To them, reading is boring.

These people are dangerous because they are righteous in their argumentation. They will say, "The last time I read a book was when I was at university because it was necessary." Or, "I'll read what is relevant to my job."

Painful as it is to admit, they give us hope because they can still be converted into reading books for leisure.

Then comes along Elijah Mhlanga, the spokesperson in the department of basic education. Through the department's #ReadToLead campaign, Mhlanga has over the years tried different strategies to promote reading, especially among young people.

This time around he decided to use pictures of provocatively dressed women and men to push his message across.

The poetic message that cannot be missed by a level-headed person when confronted with these messages is simply this: you don't have to be a stuffy person sitting behind a desk, dressed in a suit, in order to read. You can read in the nude, if you want.

Of course, these men and women are not completely naked. To me, the campaign indicates that Mhlanga has his finger on the pulse of this huge community of young people who are potential readers.

These are people who would rather look at a picture of a scantily clad Beyoncé or Bonang or even Zodwa Wabantu than listen to the State of the Nation Address.

If you get Beyoncé, or a likeness of her to communicate things about reading, they are likely to pay attention.

It is no accident that the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie only achieved her bestseller status after Beyoncé sampled her words in the song Flawless.

Which is to say, Beyoncé "sexified" literature. If you were at Abantu Book Festival in Soweto last year, you would understand what I am talking about. Adichie was mobbed as if she were Beyoncé herself.

Don't misunderstand me, Adichie is a talented writer, but her association with Beyoncé has not hurt her sales. She is now on the cover of beauty magazines, something unusual for a novelist.

Those of us who write books are grateful for such developments. For they show that books can reach more people if marketed in a language that will resonate with the target market. We can't promote books the way we were 50, or even 20, years ago.

For all his efforts, Mhlanga has been pilloried by the likes of Bongiwe Mbinqo-Gigaba, chairperson of parliament's basic education portfolio committee, who has urged for "drastic measures" to be taken against him. For the what of the what, as young people say.

Mhlanga's critics speak as if the man has indulged in gratuitous pornography. He hasn't. The images he's selected are of people who are dressed provocatively, yes, but very tastefully.

How I wish I could pose for Mhlanga. Sadly, I don't have Cassper Nyovest's six-pack.

Yes, I read in my skimpy swimming shorts by my pool sometimes. In support of Mhlanga's campaign, I'm writing this piece in the nude. Oops, comrade Mbinqo-Gigaba, please don't have a heart attack.

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