restricted access The Hidden History of South Africa's Book and Reading Cultures by Archie L. Dick (review)
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The Hidden History of South Africa's Book and Reading Cultures. By Archie L. Dick. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2012. xvi + 196pp. $55. ISBN 978 1 4426 4289 8.

When, how and why a reading culture emerges are questions of real and vital interest. This is especially so where reading itself seems to feed a desire for greater personal and social freedoms. As such there are good reasons to welcome this study, which, though it follows in the wake of several recent South African book and print histories, shifts the focus from production and consecration, and attempts instead to recover neglected stories of readers and reading. Dick is surely right to seek these stories out, even if, in doing so, he gives too little room to questions regarding the nature of reading cultures: how they are constituted and defined, how they are distinguished from one another and from other cultures of literacy, whether verbal or visual.

The range of the book is considerable taking in several centuries, locations, and linguistic communities. Beginning with the earliest days of the Cape Colony, its first two chapters consider literacy amongst slaves and Free Blacks as well as the educational policies and pedagogical practices of the Dutch East India Company and the various Christian and Muslim institutions that became increasingly prominent following the abolition of slavery. In subsequent chapters, which proceed chronologically, Dick focuses on the attempts of women's societies of the early twentieth century (Chapter 3) and 'books for troops' organizations operating during the Second World War (Chapter 4) to promote reading and to use it as a means of inculcating particular values. He next considers the roles of libraries and librarians in supporting and undermining the apartheid state (Chapters 5 and 6), and concludes by addressing the reading experiences of those whose opposition to apartheid led them into exile or prison (Chapters 7 and 8).

There is much in this study that is intriguing, such as Dick's account of the Nazi background of H. J. de Vleeschauwer, the founding father of South African book history, as well as his description of the ways in which dissident librarians circulated banned books, and his survey of the uses to which political prisoners put their bibles, which were not only read but also smoked and used for the purposes of masturbation. In lists of books awarded as school prizes or held by the exiles' library in Tanzania, there are glimpses of the kinds of distinctive attitudes to literacy and literary value that must constitute particular reading cultures. There are also moments of real surprise, for example when Dick comments that the Cape's free burghers read about Enlightenment ideas 'in books like Rousseau's Emile, and works by Voltaire and Descartes that were circulating at the Cape' (p. 31).

However too often one is left feeling that the full significance of these scraps and fragments remains unarticulated, which is perhaps the inevitable consequence of the book's scope. In other moments it is difficult to make sense of the contention that these are indeed hidden histories, given that Dick often relies on recently published memoirs, biographies, and historical studies. It is true, of course, that few of these [End Page 228] works are themselves primarily concerned with reading cultures, and it is certainly an achievement to have gleaned so much from them on this subject. It is also true that in those chapters where Dick refers more frequently to archival materials, notably 5 and 7, one has a greater sense of something freshly discovered. Nevertheless many of the sources Dick cites are readily available, and his tendency to rely on them uncritically belies his avowal of the need to read against the grain.

If these seem minor quibbles, a more troubling feature of the book is the vagueness of its conception of the 'common reader', a category that includes 'slaves and freed slaves, poor Muslim and Christian children and adults, soldiers, political prisoners, township activists, and political exiles' (p. 3). What is it that these groups share? And what is it that makes them especially relevant to a study of the 'common reader' in South Africa, when...