Quotes from various speeches, 1990-1999

FLF 2009.CF 103-croppedReading has been a lifelong passion. As a child I lived in a suburb with no girls of my age nearby, so I spent a lot of time reading – often up the flamboyant tree in front of the house. I’d climb up with my latest book and sit swaying among the leaves, reading and dreaming. Our children became bookworms for the same reason as I did: we lived out of town with no friends nearby – and there was no TV until they were teenagers.

When I discovered Arthur Ransome’s books, my Norwegian grandparents gave me a wonderful gift: each month I could buy one of the series from Griggs bookshop in West Street on their account, and after a year had all twelve on my bookshelf – to keep for my children who enjoyed them too. Grandparents can play a major role in getting kids interested in reading, by telling stories (especially family stories which they love to hear), reading to them and buying them books to keep and treasure. Start with Chris van Wyk’s unforgettable Ouma Ruby’s Secret.

Reading should be an adventure, as it was to the Victorians who devoured the books in the new lending libraries. They didn’t see reading as an intellectual activity. They read because they wanted to know and learn things and be entertained. Like them, I believe all reading is good reading. Most of my generation swapped Classic Comics (the greats of English literature in drag) as well as Superman and Batman & Robin. FTF26ZBChildren who read easily can entertain themselves, enrich their knowledge independently, and sail through school. Reading is time travel.


Libraries should be places where kids go to be told stories and choose books for themselves, able to sit on cushions or lie on the carpet comparing with other kids – opening books like treasure boxes or windows onto exciting new worlds, as many as you like.

Reading is the essential skill for education, but our society is not serious enough about encouraging it. Kids who love to be told stories when they’re little and dying to read books when they get to school, can be switched off by indifferent teachers, too much TV, school sport and computer games. This is a national disaster. I wish that all our South African children had the freedom to pick up a book and settle down with it. We have exciting children’s books in all eleven official languages, but most are too expensive for the average family. We need cheaper books, staffed school libraries and many more community media centres with staff who encourage reading for pleasure.

I hope that our schools will one day have more familiar African than foreign books on their required reading lists. I also hope that when learners study Shakespeare, they are given the chance to see the play on the stage or watch one of the exciting movies (Twelfth Night, Romeo & Juliet, Richard III, Hamlet) so they can glory in language made understandable by spirited contemporary actors.

Why so few book reviews?

The print media give scant space to book reviews, which have largely given way to trivia about authors’ lives and writing habits and how much money bestsellers make. This is a curious phenomenon with newspaper and magazine circulations plummeting. You’d think that they’d be going all out to encourage more readers – their future customers! Much of the existing criticism is concentrated on a few books and comes from a lofty literary standpoint. Sadly, most South African authors are lucky to be reviewed in a few paragraphs, sometimes many months after publication date. Unless readers are Afrikaans (which community is far more supportive of its writers than other language groups), the answer is to join a book club or look for bookshops with staff who read and recommend. The older treasures in our libraries are seldom discussed or highlighted, except on occasions by the Good Book Appreciation Society – see www.bookslive.co.za, an excellent website for current South African books. Abe Books at www.abebooks.com is a great website for finding second-hand and out-of-print books.

Some favourite quotes about books

  • Books are the carriers of civilisation.  Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill.  Without books, the development of civilisation would be impossible.  They are engines of change, windows on the world, ‘lighthouses’ (as a poet said) ‘erected in the sea of time’.  They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind.  Books are humanity in print. – Barbara Tuchman
  • A book lying idle on a shelf is wasted ammunition.  Like money, books must be kept in constant circulation.  Lend and borrow to the maximum – of both books and money!  But especially books, for books represent infinitely more than money.  A book is not only a friend, it makes friends for you.  When you have possessed a book with mind and spirit, you are enriched.  But when you pass it on, you are enriched threefold. – Henry Miller
  • The book has great advantages over the computer: it is light and it’s cheap.  That it has changed little in over 400 years suggests an uncommonly apt design.  You can drop a book in the bathtub, dry it out on the radiator and still read it.  You can put it in the attic, pull it out 200 years later, and probably decipher the words. However much dictionaries and encyclopaedias might be superseded, a well-thumbed paperback blowing in a beach breeze represents a technological stronghold the computer may never invade. – D T Max
  • A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. – William Styron