Previous dogmas like ‘reading a book is a waste of time’, ‘could do better with your time instead of sitting and reading’, has been the most prevalent forms of perception that are used to discourage or ridicule peers in the quest of bettering ones-self. Now in the 21st century, where book vendors have taken the initiative to instill the trend of reading by sheer will, things are changing for the better. The demands of the world, being knowledgeable in the arena of work space and a thirst for knowledge is continuously increasing the number of readers in Addis Ababa, writes Senait Fiseha.
“Af by Adam Reta, Born a Crime by Trevor Noah”, calls out Hailu Mekonnen with a raspy voice, showing his books to the people wondering behind the Ethiopian National Theatre. Hailu, aged 68, is one of the most prominent booksellers in the area’s history. The district is considered to be one of the city’s liveliest book markets. With its park, antique cafés, and shaded seats all next to each other, it creates an ambience of a book lover’s “paradise”.
Every day after 8:00 AM, big cartons are brought in, wide canvases are spread-out, and books are carefully laid next to each other. After the vendors are content with the assortments, they patiently wait for pedestrians to walk towards them. They are chatty, sly, knowledgeable, experienced and streetwise. They start calling out, offering books, grinning and tugging on the passer-by.
Since their first appearance several decades ago, these book traders have established a colorful market reaching every corner of the city becoming a lasting part of the capital’s fabric. Across the length of their extensive stacks, the book vendors carry modern, classic, fiction, non-fiction and academic books. These books are obtained from different sources, while the new ones are primarily from local publishers. The used books are imported, acquired from individuals or bought in bulk from Mercato.
“The books are as diverse as the buyers,” Yonas Tefera, a book vendor, said. He has been vending books for the past six years and had witnessed different trends come and go. “Recently, the most popular English books are; ‘Tower in the Sky’ and ‘Mine to Win,’ written by Hiwot Tefera. ‘Empire and Revolution in Ethiopia’ by Worku Gebeyehu is also rising in acceptance.”
Yonas has been selling philosophy, psychology, historical books for the scholars, business and finance books for business owners, exam preparatory books for students, and fictions for the idealists.
He said the notorious reputation given to this generation about their lack of interest in reading is completely inaccurate. “In fact, my number one customers are below the age of 35, and contrary to popular belief, they are not always interested in fictions or academic literature. They have become increasingly absorbed with self-development and self-help books.” The reason, he believes, is the need to become successful, stay competent and become desirable in the occupational world. The new age is moving in a very fast pace and everyone is required to adapt to reading informational writings.
“Books by Stephen R. Covey like ‘The Third Alternative’, ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’, and ‘The Eighth Habit (From Effectiveness to Greatness)’, are the bestsellers. ‘The Third Alternative’ was in such high demand that I had to order two thousand copies to be reprinted from a local publishing company. I sold almost all copies within three to four months. I am planning to order 3,000 copies for the coming July.”
Yonas has specific books in mind that he predicts will sell out. He said, he will order most of the desirable books for the coming summer. “Summer time is the most preferred season for book sellers like me; business is lucrative because students and teachers are on break.”
While consumers have a varied range of interests in English books, sellers agree that each book type caters for a different age group. College graduates and young adults are interested in books such us ‘The Power of Vision’, ‘Understand Your Potential’ and ‘The Magic of Thinking Big’. Parents are interested in illustrated books, graphic novels and the classics such as ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘Moby Dick’ for their children.
While mixed interests are found within the philosophy, soviet fiction, and history books. Brook Gebremariam, an employee from the Mexico Book Corner, said: “A lot of classics, books from Russian authors like Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, and Maxim Gorky, Ethiopian history, and politics books by Bahru Zewde and Mesfin Woldeariam are read by middle aged and older customers for reminiscing and by young adults trying to understand the past.”
Vendors like Misker Azmeraw and Abraham Tesfaye, who have been selling books for the last five years, claim that currently more English book readers visit their shops compared to Amharic readers. Misker said that if the books are good, a lot of readers are drawn to it. But booksellers, who have been in the book market in the last ten years like Melaku Gebre, disagree.
“The big boom in the English book market was seen five-six years ago. I remember a lot of people buying international books; there was even a fan base for non-translated French fictions and Ireland philosophies. Most of the buyers were former students of the Haile Selassie and Derg regime, I don’t see them anymore.”
Ever since the widespread use of smartphones and tablets, there have been a noticeable decrease in the English book market, but, according to Abraham and his friends, print books remain considerably popular. “When true readers hold a book,” said Abraham “it is more likely to be an old-fashioned print book.”
Even though the amount of time people spend has stretched and they have unlimited activities to choose from, the trends of book reading has remained somehow untouched. While modish cafés around Bole and Lancia encourage readers to read or even offer books from their shelves, busy cafés and coffee shops around Arat Kilo, the Ethiopian National Theater, and Piassa have signs saying “No Reading “or “Seats Available only up to 30 minutes.”
The English book reading trend seems encouraging. Booksellers have expanded their sections focusing on both reluctant and avid readers, making the process of choosing what to read easier. And for book lovers in Addis Ababa, the appeal of sitting quietly in their homes, in a café, or throughout a taxi ride is definite. Perhaps it is the sitting still to focus, it is something that does not appear to happen in most people’s lives.
Contributed by Senait Fiseha