South Africa

The True Story of Us

Honouring our heroes through a special library would speak volumes

Honouring our heroes through a special library would speak volumes
Photo by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash

In the midst of all the acrimonious back and forth about the ability of the Department of Arts and Culture to address some real needs, rather than ladling out the gravy for new arts centres and heritage sites that will not be funded, maintained, or managed, why not actually address a real need that combines the imperatives of both halves of that department – culture and heritage – in a way that can actually reach most South Africans, as well as the entire world.

I admit it – I enjoy browsing in second-hand bookstores. Sometimes it is the serendipitous pleasure of finding an unexpected volume about a topic of interest or intrigue, and sometimes it is the delight in finding an unknown work or a real treasure by a long-admired author. First editions of Peter Abrahams’ first two books came into my hands that way, and so, almost, did the first printing of JM Coetzee’s first novel, Dusklands. (Cost was a consideration, here, sadly.)

Next best, nowadays, is to go into a major bookstore and look across the shelves – perhaps among the new and recently published volumes, or among the “classics” in order to find a much-liked text now available in paperback. But, unless one has full, unfettered access to a university library system (and one that has been maintained effectively), actually hunting down an elusive but noteworthy volume becomes a major task, and an often-bitterly frustrating chore. Asking local South African book dealers to back order a copy from abroad then turns out to be a damned expensive one too. Even working with online sellers has its challenges.

While many world classics are now accessible online in the repositories of thousands of e-books available through Project Gutenberg and other similar websites (my iPad has several dozen classics just in case), lots of us – come on, admit it, you do too – actually like to hold a book, to read it, to put it back on its shelf, and then take it down again to read a favoured passage. The texture of a well-printed volume is, all by itself, almost regardless of the content, a pleasure to hold and read. After all, a book is a ridiculously convenient artefact and a bit of well-trusted technology, and it doesn’t go, Poof! Gone! Vanished into the ether! if you just happen to touch the wrong page by mistake.

The problem with books, of course, is that once they are published, they can easily go out of print, become unavailable and eventually become invisible, unless something else is done about it. That, of course, is one of the prime purposes of libraries. They exist to keep even out-of-print volumes accessible to the public. And they are immensely valuable for doing just that task.

But there is another approach for certain works. This is to keep important works continuously in print and available for purchase, well beyond the more immediate, commercial rationale of quick sales.

Back in 1931, the young French editor, Jacques Schiffrin, created the Pleiades Library to keep the most important literature in French available in high-quality volumes for readers. At present, this series now includes over 800 books from over 250 authors, in addition to those volumes that include published collections such as poetry, from many different writers. While the majority of these volumes are from French authors, writers from other nations are included and some of the volumes come in bilingual editions, such as Shakespeare’s plays. The Pleiades Library volumes come beautifully printed and are leather bound.

Schiffrin’s idea was so influential that it generated an Italian spin-off from the same publishing house for that nation’s vast literary legacy as well. And it also directly inspired a similar initiative from American publishers and scholars. With early support from the federal government’s National Endowment of the Humanities and the Ford Foundation, the Library of America (LOA) was established in 1979. Its first roster of volumes came out in 1982, and hundreds more have followed in succession.

This kind of publishing venture is not limited to the high culture classics or those old stalwarts of the literary canon taught in university English departments. The LOA, for example, includes major documents from the country’s history such as the debates over the adoption of the constitution, collections of great reporting from World War II, from the Vietnam War, and the civil rights revolution, classic sermons, great sports writing, memoirs by generals like Ulysses S Grant and William T Sherman, and even the science-fiction novels of Philip K Dick and Ursula K Le Guin. Every one of these volumes has extensive notes and is published on 100% rag, sturdy but thin Bible-style paper, in strong bindings and with a book sleeve. And, of course, each volume is being kept in print, presumably until the end of days finally arrives.

Meanwhile, in Britain, the Heinemann African Writers Series, established in 1962, has now been relaunched in this decade after the near-cessation of its efforts. It now includes nearly 300 volumes from across the continent, including novelists, poets, dramatists, political polemicists and thinkers, cultural commentators, and essayists. To make the series more commercially feasible for purchase by the widest possible swathe of Africa’s readers, all of these volumes are published in paperback, rather than with elaborate bindings and slipcovers. The books may not last as long as the LOA’s do, but many eyes can access them.

And, as for South Africa? Well, carry out this experiment for yourself. Go to the best bookstore you can find and see if you can find the full works of the country’s two Nobel Prize for Literature winners (Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer), or all – or perhaps even any – of the work by such major talents as Sipho Sepamla, Oswald Mtshali, Wally Mongane Serote, Thomas Mofolo, Peter Abraham, Es’kia Mphahlele, Sol Plaatje, Gibson Kente, Mafika Gwala, Richard Rive, Olive Schreiner, William Plomer (or, at least his South African-inspired works), Bessie Head, and Miriam Tladi, just for starters.

This doesn’t even include collections of the most important journalistic writing from the mainline press as well as alternative media such as “Classic” and “New Classic”, “South”, “Saamstad”, “The Weekly Mail”, or “Vrye Weekblad” – and even, perhaps, key examples of political pamphleteering and other published ephemera. Maybe Schreiner’s Story of an African Farm is about (we seem to have three copies), and collections of Athol Fugard’s or John Kani’s plays may be on the shelves, along with the Junction Ave Theatre Company’s Sophiatown since it is now a school setwork, but there is little likelihood one’s arms will be loaded down with the makings of a comprehensive collection of this country’s best writing.

The point here is obvious. There should be a halt to commissions of any more of those truly execrable statues that commemorate “The Struggle” and some of its leaders, as well as a pause and a rethink for those proposals to build still more theatres that can’t be maintained with available funds, or to underwrite new national theatre and ballet companies. Instead, the Department of Arts and Culture (in common with its responsibilities for heritage) should spend some precious human capital and some real seed money (and in co-operation with commercial publishers) to begin a national project, modelled on the Pleiades Library, the Library of America, and the Heinemann African Writers Series. This would ensure that the country’s important written legacy is preserved and – crucially – made available to every functioning library, university, and high school in the country, in addition to being offered for sale to the general public.

In keeping with the contemporary world, the volumes should be available online, as well as being offered on CDs for those who prefer to ingest their literature through a machine rather than a book. Such series would also be the perfect item for the country’s embassies abroad to distribute to university libraries and centres of study about Africa. And, while we’re at it, perhaps the government can even grant an exemption from VAT for the purchase of these volumes to help hard-pressed consumers. That might even give a way forward to push for VAT relief for printed educational materials more generally.

Key in getting this underway will be to avoid being caught up in academic brawls about what belongs in the series or doesn’t. Picking fights over things like that is usually second nature to South Africans, but it seems certain to this writer that at least the first 25 or 30 writers should easily be universally agreed upon choices.

Get that accomplished with well-published volumes selected by a blue-ribbon list of editors and annotated by scholars, and with the buy-in of publishers, and then, later, we can fight over who else (Fred Khumalo, Phaswane Mpe, Sello Duiker, Matsemela Manaka, Lesego Rampolokeng?) belongs, a decade from now, once the ball is rolling.

But somebody in authority must decide this country’s literature deserves to be preserved and made a lasting legacy for succeeding generations. So far at least, grandiose new buildings and boring statues seem to be the way forward. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.