The Zimbabwe International Book Fair is over for another year and while the organisers and exhibitors must be thanked for their support and hard work, their great effort must be backed by the creation of a reading culture in Zimbabwe, with a love of books.
Zimbabwean readers already feel they are a beleaguered minority. The two large and established chains of bookshops, that used to serve the cities and several of the larger towns both closed, at least as booksellers, during the inflationary era. The gap has been partly filled by newer chains and booksellers, but unless your reading is limited to school textbooks, management texts, and evangelical Christian titles, it can be difficult to buy books.
The market for general readers, those who read for pleasure rather than instruction and those who wish to keep up with international trends in literature, seems limited. But such readers do exist; some are lucky enough to be able to stock up in airports as they travel on business. Others have to track down second-hand books.
Libraries are variable. Some, which require quite high subscriptions, do have a wide variety of stock including a reasonable selection of books published in the last two decades. Others, especially some of the municipal branch libraries, fill the vital role of providing reasonable study facilities, but are clearly short of funds and stock for general reading.
There are those who say that the Internet and the smart-phone have made books obsolete. Well the Internet might have information and has a numbers of good sources of texts no longer in copyright, but is hardly a source of books written in the last century. E-books are a growing market, but readers require at the very least a kindle, costing at least US$100, plus a power supply to recharge batteries, plus a credit card to buy the books, plus an internet or wifi connection to get them.
And whatever the techno savvy say, they must miss that pleasure of holding a well-printed book and the smell of new paper. The high sales of newspapers and magazines, both readily available in Zimbabwe, suggests that many actually like to hold printed matter when they read, especially when they read for pleasure.
But in the end it does not matter whether people read from printed paper or from a screen, so long as they love reading. And it is the lack of this love of reading that is so worrying.
Most children now, if they can find even a dollar or two, would prefer to spend the money playing games on a computer or sitting on their phones for hours, rather than buying or downloading books. Most adults are proud to state they look on books as "tools" to get ahead, but would prefer to flop down in front of a television when they have finished their studies.
Few schools have a decent library, but even those who do often have to drive the majority of pupils through the doors, rather than have a policy of limiting access during exams.
The best time to create a reader is when the person is a child. They love stories, they will want to read more as they learn to do so. But how many parents these days read to their small children? Most are tired after a day's work and are happier to just lie back in front of a screen themselves rather than find the 30 minutes to read a story.
Others could step in. Half a century ago there used to be an excellent afternoon radio programme for children, lasting a whole hour. There was a story for young children, a short magazine programme and then a solid 30 minutes of a good reader going through several chapters of a first-class book. Bookshops used to phone up to find out what the next book to be read was, so they could stock up. That programme created a demand.
Even 30 years ago there were radio readings of books for adults ("adult book" now means something different) late at night and again many were introduced to titles and authors they might have known before.
It would be cheap and easy to start such programmes again. But such measures to create demand need to be backed by better libraries, both in schools and communities and by a willingness of more booksellers to take a chance on general titles.
During the onerous years of UDI with savage import controls there were at least eight books adequate to very good bookshops in central Harare, when the city was a quarter of its present size.
It is surprising that with controls lifted and the new currency regime, that the growing number of booksellers still limit the bulk of their stock to textbooks and religious titles; these are needed, but there is so much more that could be done. We are missing something that our children may one day regret.