New year, new you – right? So the oft-repeated saying goes, adopted by retailers of all stripes. But in South Africa, this cherished maxim does not extend to books.
Every year the sales charts tell the same story: our giddy romp through the richly-sown aisles of enticing new fiction and non-fiction comes to a screeching halt at approximately midnight on December 24th, and as a nation, we collectively revert to type. We lose interest in new books. We drag ourselves back to what passes, in South Africa, as the modern classics.
Entering the bookshop, we avoid eye-contact with the beautiful festive season hardbacks, still glowing like polished apples in their merchandised piles, waiting in vain for stragglers to pick them up and take a bite. As though our minds were fully under the control of a parasite – the zombie-ant fungus, but for literature – we breeze past them, approach a bookseller and, without a shred of self-consciousness, ask: “Do you have a copy of The Alchemist?”
The Alchemist: a zombie book, devouring human brains.
See how it metastasizes stealthily, steadily back up the rankings in January, having been suppressed temporarily by publishers’ well-timed yuletide bestsellers, but now regaining its hold on our imaginations and wallets. Why, just yesterday it was skulking in exile outside the top 35; blink and lo! …it’s suddenly number 19, and rising.
I implore you not to buy The Alchemist this year. You think you’re turning over a new spiritual leaf, acquiring this book – or encouraging someone out of a rut by giving it to them – but in fact, you’re merely succumbing to the conditioning of popular culture. You’re following the prompts. You can do better.
Alongside Paolo Coelho’s blindweed-like bestseller, be sure to avoid a couple of other popular titles whose tempting purchase feels like a safe step toward changing your life, but instead simply makes you – and the literary ecosystem that you, as a book buyer, naturally want to see flourish – poorer. They are:
Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki. The twisted genius of this book lies in how it strikes at the heart of every father, who automatically thinks he’s the poor dad, and that spending R150 on a slim paperback will magically move him into the other category. Remember: once you’ve bought this book, you can’t exchange it for lottery tickets, which have about the same effectiveness in making you rich, but at least carry a whiff of excitement about them.
The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma. Sharma’s other bestseller, The 5AM Club, you can easily evade just by reading its title, which gives you the book’s entire lesson in a single glance. But The Monk seemingly has mystery – that is, until you Google its author and discover that his net worth went up considerably after he got rid of the sports car. Sharma is the monk who found a better grift, and you’re the mark.
Books like these (and there are more, oh so many more lurking in the charts) comprise, collectively, a literary desert. The trick is to recollect, while you’re holding such a book in your hands, that you’re standing in an oasis – a bookshop. Reclaiming the inner spark that led you to seek self-improvement is simply a matter of exploring other books nearby. Dive in! Find something you’ve never heard of.
Dare I say – try a novel? Nothing inoculates against zombie brain like a dose of fiction. How about Helen Moffett’s Jane Austen tribute, Charlotte? Or Angela Makholwa’s thriller, Critical But, Stable? Reading fresh literature will do you a world more good than slogging along with the rest of the Coelho- and Kiyosaki-addled undead. Go ahead, adopt my mantra as your own: new year, new books. DM/ ML
Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.