The first books I read were only a few pages long. They were books we read in class in the first year of primary school. You may remember them if you grew up in the corner of the world where I did: in southwestern Nigeria. When Will I Be Big and The Twins I Know are the only two of them which I remember.
Short lines printed on pages swaddled by thin, resilient covers. Covers bedeck with illustrations on the outside. We read those books with such frequency that eventually, we learned to chant them. I think now, in retrospect, that we would have recited them with little difficulty were we to have been roused from sleep. That was how familiar we were with them. And I presume that the purpose of the exercise was to familiarise us with words, especially their pronunciations.
In subsequent years in primary school, we ripped through English Language text books as we read stories chronicling the lives of different characters every year. Characters we often fell in love with, and with whom we amuse ourselves as we reminisce those days long gone with nostalgia. The characters felt to us like contemporaries. We found them so relatable, their lives seemed merely a reflection of ours. Ali and Simbi were the protagonists of Book One. We sojourned eastern Nigeria through the eyes of Edet in Book Two. Emeka, Wakama and Okon in Book Three. The racking nervousness which assailed Wakama on one sweltry afternoon, moments before the big school year race still lingers in my memory. My primary school decided, in my last year to switch English Language textbooks and the franchise they chose was the English Project. Zarat was the top act in that book. Her introduction to us was just fitting: her playing heroine in a road accident.
In the years after When will I be big, we read a slew of books during literature class. Among them were The Fall of The Animal Kingdom and Who The Crown Fits. The titles of the rest fail me now, something which does not surprise me. In those days when we crawled through those books often on hot afternoons, with excitement, because everyone loves a good story, and at times for some students, with trepidation. The teacher often paused amidst recitation to survey the class while we waited with bated breath, before she would thrust a hand out, her index finger reaching to a facet of the class as she chose a student to take over reading proceedings. What usually resulted was a student, often in distress who looks up dazzled, as he places a hand on his thorax accompanied by a murmur of ‘Me?’ Reading out loud in class was a torture for most, and a grandstanding party for a few.
I did not imagine in those days that reading was something I would come to indulge in with deliberateness. Not to the point of curating books, cherry picking the writers I read and scheduling my time to include a time for a quick read. More interestingly, making the reading of curated fiction and nonfiction a bridge in my battle with the rigours of school work. I read in short bursts in breaks taken between longer bouts of studying as the hours to exams draw nearer. It was only convenient activity to indulge in. In the the sparse, suburban environment where I grew up, where NEPA did not always have any affection for us. At the times when the claws of boredom reached to grip me and I sought solace, I found them in the scribed papers.
My folks never had any room dedicated as library. But shelves of books, they had. Before long, I had stripped the shelves of the books that excited me. In the following years, alongside my peers in Junior Secondary School, I engaged in an exercise in economics: a trade by barter. You lend me one book, I return the favour. Simplita. It was during those times that I first came upon James Hadley Chase. Of course my Yoruba parents had no books of such, what with the prurient pictures that persistently adorned the covers? It was books of the African Writers Series and Pace Setters they had. That, they could live with. And it was what, alongside the random oyinbo books I got from school that I read. That was, until my brother came back from school on a fine evening and in his bag laid a Tom Clancy novel. The game was on. I shunned everything else. I was a big boy now. A big boy who read techno-thrillers, and was no one’s mate. Except my Gs. My Gs and I continued to exchange books until Valedictory Service.
I found Dan Brown in 2011, in the second year of Senior Secondary School. The year before, I had read a Frederick Forsyth, and had romped through nearly all of Sidney Sheldon’s books. Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress was what burned my mattress. It was a quite thrilling read. I had begun reading the book on an evening the same day I got it from school. Reading had gone deep into the night, past light out when the electricity generator had been laid to rest, so I whipped out a stick of candle, burned it alight and mounted it on the edge of the bed. It wasn’t that I was oblivious to the potential consequence of placing a burning, and thus melting stick of wax on wood. Rather, I considered myself too clear-eyed to descend into sleep. At least that was what I thought. Until something, perhaps my mechanoreceptors whisking shrilling alarm bells down my sensory pathways woke me in the dead of the night. I was literally almost on fire.
I leapt out of bed. The candle had burnt out and the spot on which it had stood gleamed black now. By some inexplicable means, flame had pardoned the wooden edge of the bed and found its way onto the foam. Adrenaline shot up in me and I lurched into action, heaving the flaming foam and hurrying out, banging down doors as I made my way out of the house. I proceeded then to a faucet outside, scrambling for buckets with which to get water. I made laps of frenzy between the running tap and my flaming foam, juggling with me a bucket of water with each sprint. By the time it was over, half of the foam was gone, transformed into a cake of soot on my feet, and smother in the night sky.
In the morning when my folks woke to the mess I had made, I did not tell them that I had been reading a novel in bed with a candle by my pillow. What they gleaned instead was that this boy of theirs had been hard at study for his Chemistry test the next morning. No one, not even my G from whom I had borrowed the book ever learned about the true events of the day. I never returned the book. It had come to look something akin to Sandor ‘The Hound’ Clegane’s head. Keep in mind that paper is more flammable material.
I have not burned any book since then. I have not slammed them on the floor either. Not even ones I detest and exit with disdain. I would not want to break my own devices, would I? And there have been a number of those. I spend some of my reading hours consuming literary fiction now. I have joined bad gang. Since becoming more enamoured with prose on reading Peter Abrahams’ Mine Boy a year after Secondary School. A book I ironically first laid hands on in the finale of Junior Secondary School and proclaimed boring. I have not read a ‘bestseller’ in a long time. But no, I do not mean to sound elitist, I just fell in love with fine prose.