Not long ago I was in a bush village in a remote part of Zimbabwe where everyone begged, "Please leave us the books you have with you, please send us books from London."
Two days later in London I was with teachers at an expensive private boys' school discussing how they could persuade their pupils to read anything. Until recently it was taken for granted that educated people read. Working people valued books, and institutes and libraries were set up to meet this need.
Books were seen as Francis Bacon saw them: "Reading maketh a full man." The results of not reading are to be seen in conversations with young people who may have been at school for 20 years, but who have not read. They are sublimely ignorant.
Reading provides a parallel education. Jane Austen put it: "some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour". In addition to higher pleasures there is something we take for granted - information. We know about past times and cultures, present cultures, different parts of the world, different kinds of people, from novels.
All over the Third World people see books as key to a better life - and this does not mean, merely, a better job. In Zimbabwe people who may scarcely have held a book in their hands, still value reading. In a remote bush village a friend was approached by two youths: "We have built a library, please come." It was a shelf in a grass hut. "Now please give us the books." She did what she could.
A child in a school where children are frisked as they leave class in case they have filched books was found with a book on advanced physics under his bed. Why had he stolen one he could not understand? "I wanted a book of my own."
I am involved with a scheme to get books to areas of Zimbabwe most efforts ignore: the villages, the farm compounds (not all of them white farms), the mines. These might be without a telephone or electricity, let alone television. This scheme plans to use books already published inside Zimbabwe. Books from outside threaten a fragile industry already weakened by imports from Britain, South Africa, America, which are most valuable, useful and to be supported, but hardly do more than touch the fringe of the problem.
The instant response of everyone hearing of this hunger for books is:
"Where may I send my spare books?" - highlighting our superfluity. Book Aid International, the oldest, most comprehensive and experienced of the Europe-based organisations for sending books to the Third World, is inundated with people's throwouts, is grateful, but says that a gift of money or a guaranteed pound;5 a month would be better.
Surveys to ascertain what people want list poetry, good novels, adventure, romance, detective stories, science fiction, historical novels. They also like particularly those with smaller vocabularies, Mills and Boon and Enid Blyton. I saw a couple of young men pleading for Tarzan stories. "We love Tarzan." "Over my dead body," said their mentor.
The most popular title is Animal Farm, for obvious reasons. They love Thomas Hardy. World Tales, by Idries Shah, a collection of folk tales, is popular not least because some tales are to be found in the Shona and Ndebele traditions. Jane Eyre is a favourite; there is something about that tale that transcends culture.
It is an interesting fact that black writers from other parts of Africa don't much appeal, but their own do. Women love Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions, which they say defines their lives.
A few books may transform an area. The scheme I am involved with sends out boxes of books, that always include a dictionary, an atlas, and an encyclopaedia - which may be the only ones for miles around, and in one of the remotest poorest areas there came into being a library - a plank under a tree - and a letter said: "People cannot live without water. Books are our water". Study groups, civic groups, reading groups, literacy groups, may result from 40 books.
The Zimbabwe government pays lip service to books and libraries. In a country where schools fall short of what they should be, you would think it would seize this opportunity to build on the good fortune of having a book-hungry population - and fund libraries. But like successive governments in Britain, it is stupid and short sighted.