Mad about the book
After 15 years of achievement, Dina Ezzat
reports, the Reading for All campaign can still do much more
This week in Alexandria, Mrs Suzanne Mubarak is launching a summer project to incorporate the Reading for All campaign into the framework of Bibliotheca Alexandrina activities. The project provides for the acquisition of a collection of Reading for All publications and its presentation to the public as of 5 July and until 11 October. Perceived by campaign organisers as the sign of a new stage in the evolution of this 15-year old project, which started in the summer of 1991 as a means to regenerating public interest in reading by producing and promoting inexpensive editions of interesting and best-selling titles. The present stage of evolution, they said, involves spreading cultural awareness on a somewhat wider scale.
Iman Abdallah, a Reading for All cultural coordinator, elaborated, "Before, the Reading for All campaign was all about selling inexpensive books and making them available to as many public libraries as possible -- for a reduced-price monthly subscription. Now the campaign has expanded to accommodate cultural seminars, encounters with visiting cultural figures, festivals, writing and publishing contests and much more." Such developments are inspired by growing public demand, she said -- particularly among children. Between the Arab Al-Mohamedi Public Library, where the first round of the campaign was inaugurated on 6 June 1991, and the present initiative in Alexandria, Abdallah noticed "a huge difference in the demands of children" who frequent the reading area: "Before, they were happy with simple children's tales; if we gave them a colouring book, that would be a real treat. Today even a seven-year-old wants far more: books on IT, access to the Internet, video games and language learning kits," all of which are provided for in the upcoming programme.
The same goes for adults, judging by those who frequent book-selling venues. Browsing the Reading for All shelf in the Sherif Street General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO) bookshop, for example, Ali Hussein, a 32-year-old English teacher, did not seem to find what he was looking for: "Much as I appreciate this project -- I've been able to buy Naguib Mahfouz and Abbas El-Aqqad titles for two and three pounds a book -- there are books that remain unavailable: the political works of Mohamed Hassanin Heikal, for example, and translations of modern world classics."
According to GEBO chairman Nasser El-Ansari, in the last 15 years, the Reading for All camping, together with its twin initiative, the Family Library, which focusses on inexpensive editions, published some 37 million copies of 3,100 titles, including contemporary literature, classics, biography and children's books. They also introduced previously unknown writers. Alongside such staples of the Arabic canon as the work of Al-Roumi and Al-Jahiz, these include the work of novelists Gamal El-Ghitani ( Al-Zaini Barakat ), Khairi Shalabi and Edwar El-Kharat as well as vernacular poet Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi's compilation of the oral Beni Hilal epic. Within the same framework is a series of "intellectual works" in which figures like El-Aqqad, Abdel-Rahman Badawi, Zaki Naguib Mahmoud, Gaber Asfour and Galal Amin are represented: Al-Aqqad's biographical trilogy on Christ, Prophet Mohamed and Caliph Omar Ibn Al-Khattab is among the best-sellers, while Amin and Asfour's work on Arab culture in the global context is indispensable.
Also available are the autobiographies of former culture minister Tharwat Okasha, Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz and pioneer woman writer Latifa El-Zayyat -- as well as books by the 20th- century woman writers including younger voices like Miral El-Tahawi. And this is not to mention the great scholar Taha Hussein's translation of Sophocles, critic Ali El-Raie's of Chekov and poet Salah Abdel-Sabour's of Camus and Kafka -- all of which had long been out of print. Yet El-Ansari was as eager to stress the project's efforts to disseminate scientific knowledge, to which purpose titles on informatics and genetics, including translations by the well-known geneticist Ahmed Mostagir, have been published.
GEBO vice-chairman, writer Wahid Abdel-Meguid assesses the project's pros and cons: "First of all the Reading for All-Family Library campaign started on a much smaller scale; it has evolved into an impressive endeavour targeting millions of readers who would otherwise be unable to access the books in question. But the titles fall short of some readers' expectations -- especially those with a taste for modern literature and best-selling fiction. I am willing to admit that the selection mechanisms must be reconsidered. That said, it is important to realise that ultimately the vast majority of the books we produce are inexpensive re-editions of titles the copyrights to which GEBO does not own -- so it depends in part on the will and initiative of publishers and writers. In the last 15 years, books published in the framework of this campaign have been selected by a committee made up of a handful of writers and intellectuals, nominated mostly by the Ministry of Culture. They spend a month looking through lists of proposed titles submitted by writers and publishers. And in the end, when you have no more than 10 people looking through lists and synopses of several hundred titles and working to a deadline, there is only so much they can do. There is bound to be a margin of error -- unintentional as it remains."
To help amend this mechanism, GEBO is planning to establish a Reading for All-Family Library secretariat, composed mostly of GEBO employees working all year round to help members of the selection committee keep apace of the publishing business -- the latest developments and the most important events. The selection committee is also to be expanded to include a greater number of intellectuals from different backgrounds, and spend more time on the selection process to ensure that choices are made on merit. Such reforms of the selection process are intended as part of a more general adjustment of the concept informing the campaign "It will always be about making books accessible," Abdel-Meguid said, "but now it will also contribute more directly to the awareness camping to which society is aspiring."
Reflecting these policies, the 2005 titles -- to appear in a few days -- include much literature, some sociology and philosophy and several recent IT and the science titles. All in all, El-Ansari announced, some 100 titles will be published, of which 50 fall within the category of fiction. In the build-up to publication, GEBO spent the last month selling 100 titles which, though printed and published, had accumulated in storage rooms due to ineffective publicity or a slow market. These too include literary, science and history titles; and they were sold in GEBO bookshops at inexpensive prices. Hussein Mohamed, assistant at the Sherif Street GEBO outlet, for one engaged party, was very enthusiastic about this move: "I think this was a very positive initiative. If the books were already there, then why not sell them." According to Mohamed the Reading for All-Family Library is yearly increasing in size. "I think that if they keep the prices at an average of LE2-3, the campaign will definitely maintain an audience -- because there really are so many people who love to read and to own books." Yet any increase in price, he warned, would in all probability jeopardise the project.
"No matter how small, it will no doubt have a negative impact on sales." When children's books were sold at LE4 in 2004, he recalled, an immediate drop in sales figures followed. "People were not even looking at the books to check their prices -- they assumed that all prices had been raised, and we had to display the LE4 books separately to encourage customers to start looking at other books again." But since children's books are the best-selling by far, Mohamed argued, an increase in their prices is likely to result in an all-round drop in sales. Having sold Reading for All Family Library books for over 10 years, Mohamed observes that, in terms of sales, history books are the next best: "People love them. In 2003 we offered several volumes of an Egyptology encyclopaedia and it sold very well." He also mentioned a series of books on Egyptian society under Mohamed Ali and an encyclopaedia of human civilisation. Like customers, salespeople are hoping that the 2005 titles will include a greater number of modern and popular titles.
The positive impact of the campaign goes beyond the interest of readers and public libraries, including the Mubarak Libraries; it extends to private publishers and newspaper and magazine sellers. Farag Ali, a Talaat Harb newspaper vendor, testified to that much: "People stop by to ask if I have Reading for All books. It doesn't matter whether I have what they're asking for, though -- they always find something on my stand." Safwat Abaza, director of Al-Ahram Book Club, agrees: the Reading for All campaign has generated an interest in reading that's benefiting many relevant sectors. Membership of Al-Ahram Book Club has increased, and the business of the Al-Ahram distributors responsible for Family Library books has increased -- so much so that Ahram Book Club has been holding fairs in the benefit of many government and private companies and institutions: "And we 've been selling well -- even if it is paid for in instalments." Even independent publishers who complain that during the summer the campaign "hijacks the market", will still acknowledge the momentum it has generated in the book market and the publishing world as a whole.