Rare books and the stories they tell

When literary scholar, Nathan Suhr-Sytsma recently posted on Twitter that he had inherited a “legendary poetry anthology, edited by the much-missed Harry Garuba and published in 1988,” it occurred to me that this bequest, if we may call it that, was a rare book I may never find in Lagos, the original home of Malthouse Press Nigeria, the publishers of the anthology. But what actually makes a book rare? Or when does a book become an object of rarity? In a Nigerian context, it is definitely not only a question of its oldness, although that is important. More crucially, the cultural politics of knowledge production invites us to understand how books are not only made rare, absent, and inaccessible, but also figure into the crises of education in the country.

Collectors and librarians often speak of rare books as distinctive texts that are deemed to have a special value because of their limited supply, age, or historical significance. The first edition of Achebe Things Fall Apart, for instance, might be understood in this sense. While there are countless editions of the classic anti-colonial novel, to find the first edition would be truly special, even if many fail to appreciate such sentiments. When the Nigerian writer Lola Shoneyin invited book-collectors on Twitter to buy her friend’s “first print, first edition of #ThingsFallApart for N1m,” several followers and readers online were bemused by the monetary value the book commanded.

The distinction of this rare copy may not be in the sense of the original manuscript of the novel in Achebe’s handwriting, but that does not even come close to diminishing its unique quality. Well documented already are Achebe’s adventures with the initial manuscript of his acclaimed novel, as well as his experience of losing, and later recovering the untyped manuscript after the intervention of his colleague at the Nigerian radio service, Angela Beattie. I wish I could say that “manuscript—handwritten, by the way, and the only copy in the whole world” then is now somewhere in the special collections at the University of Ibadan.

If it still exists today, it may probably be in the special collections of some library in the US or in the UK. While the physical and aesthetic features of this particular first print, which Shoneyin advertised and later found a buyer for, are sufficient reasons for those Twitter followers to reconsider their dismissive stance, this copy is also the closest to the original and has probably gathered dust, memories, and meanings which have become tattooed on its material identity. You should read Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún’s reflection on book collecting to get a sense of how people develop an attachment to physical books as objects connected to memories, narratives, and spaces.

We hardly think of books as material objects with physical and para-textual characteristics that shape the stories they convey. Hence, as a rare book, Heinemann’s first print issue of Achebe’s novel came with a specific cover, front matter, paper type and page numbers that are different from other editions produced later. These variations, which are usually the research delights of a bibliographical scholar or textual critic, may become central for narrative discovery. But the scholarly possibilities of rare first editions and other priceless printed works aside, I do believe rare books tell other stories, and this is the crux of my Achebe digression on the rarity of print and literary publishing, a topic Suhr-Sytsma actually under the rubric of the extroverted African novel and literary publishing in Nigeria.

Photo credits: Nathan Suhr-Sytsma

Rare books offer us tales that evoke our relationship with knowledge and the cultural politics that undermine it in a country like Nigeria. If we assume for a moment that a copy of a 1988 anthology by Nigeria’s foremost writer community can only be found in Atlanta or London, rather than in a special collections in Ibadan or Lagos, then it speaks to something of our own valuation of the knowledge we create. That is one major story rare books in Nigeria tell. A book is not rare because its market value is huge; it is rare because its existence in a local library is precarious or it can only be found in locations external to Nigeria.

We routinely point to the economic disparities between the Global North and the Global South as some of the possible reasons for this, but is it not the case that there are African countries where the archive and the public library are truly functional spaces? Aside from Botswana, South Africa, and a couple of countries in the Maghreb, Senegal and a few others also boast of a sturdy intellectual tradition, having public spaces of knowledge that are accorded the veneration they deserve. With a messy educational sector in Nigeria, it is reasonable to conclude books, maps, manuscripts, and other rare artifacts or document of African thought are not as well preserved as they need to for the pursuits of knowledge for its own sake.  

The rarity of that Garuba anthology is, then, one chief indication of the historical neglect of education in countries like Nigeria where decades of prebendal politics have undermined epistemic spaces and infrastructures. Strikes and boycotts by professors may be the most popular, albeit passé, means of pressing the government to fund education, but the state of books, their conditions of production and circulation, their absences in libraries as well as their presence or not in our country also echo what has become a precarious entanglement with knowledge.  Rare books in Nigeria are the inventions of a political class that underplays education. The rarity of books must therefore be encountered as an invention of weak democracies, besides the material aesthetics and historical value they possess.

Rare books also suggest a certain limited presence of books that anchor our institutions of learning; it is not that you will never find signed copies, handwritten manuscripts, first print issues, and precious government papers in Nigeria; on the other hand, their presence and the information they contain are shaped by the crumbling shelves of underfunded public libraries and archives.

But the presence of Nigeria’s rare books must sometimes reach us when we become absent from our country. Of course, there is still much to be mined for research in public knowledge environments in Nigeria, and many scholars who appear to treasure those collections more than we do routinely travel from the Global North to different archival locations on the continent to access these materials; yet, for now, it is as if, barring very few interventions in digital publishing, we must always leave Nigeria to encounter the most sophisticated ideas produced about Nigeria. This is not to suggest you can’t find cultural institutions that value rare and historical materials in Nigeria. The Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding at Osogbo is one of several places where it is possible to see well-documented historical publications.

So, what makes it possible for books once published and available in Nigeria to become absent and rare there while easily accessible abroad? This is not always a question of income differentials between Africa and the west. One way to think about this is, returning to Achebe, to ask if any single library in Nigeria has all the currently existing editions of his famous novel. What is stake in such a question is one that tackles the structural conditions that generate the rarity of books in Nigeria.

Two common narratives about the archive of African knowledge systems which are often expressed in intellectual circles on the continent and its diaspora are relevant here too. They are based on orality, and the state of print publishing in Africa studies. You have probably heard that common dictum of oral culture sometimes attributed to the Malian, Amadou Hampâté Bâ: “In Africa, when an old man dies, a library burns down.” In the winter of 1960, Bâ rendered a similar line as head of Mali’s delegation at a UNESCO General Conference: “I consider the death of each of these traditionalists as the burning of an unexploited cultural fund.” This sweltering vision of a library that actually burns, unfortunately, was to be seen in the recent Table Mountain fire at the University of Cape Town.

Its attendant ruination of rare books and other print artifacts on African literatures and history remains hauntingly fresh in the memory of many scholars working in South Africa and indeed around the world. In this case, our tragic ashes of knowledge are not constitutive of the destruction of any oral library embodied by griots and elders committed to our ways of knowing; it is the irreplaceable loss of historical materials, manuscripts, and government records.

The second narrative centers on the often-lamented inability of colleagues and researchers in Africa to access the newest books published about the continent from the Global North usually because of huge costs. Infrastructures of knowledge, perennially anchored on weak systems because of lack of funding has historically created conditions in which books written about Africa are constantly produced elsewhere.

It has become a pastime in recent years for the Africa’s diaspora class of intellectuals to lament the inaccessibility of their publications on the African continent. While this is beginning to change, it has meant that the archive of African epistemic forms have always been a migrant and extrovertedly oriented location that is historically tied to colonial politics and the institutional knowledge spaces colonialism created to normalize and legitimize its hegemony.  In recent years, though, there have been several initiatives to make books about Africans accessible on the continent. One prominent example of this is the African Books Collective (ABC), a worldwide marketing and distribution outlet for books from Africa.

Specializing in scholarly, literature and children’s books, the collective also profiles the work of African publishers and books through its Read African Books initiative. With platforms such as this, it is much more effortless to document our relations with books, build digital spaces to remediate extant materials, and turn a preservationist gaze towards those that become or are made rare by the politics of our indifference to knowledge.

The argument can be made that the real issue here is about the complexities and instabilities of print cultures in Africa and how different groups and individuals initially in different African cities responded to colonial modernity and used newspaper cultures, for example, for their nationalist struggles Scholars like Karin Barber, Stephanie Newell, and Rebecca Jones have important contributions on this topic.

But, again, the question persists: what conditions make, for instance, copies of literary pamphlets in the famous Onitsha Market tradition accessible in Kansas or Florida, but not in Nsukka? If we aren’t able to locate similar texts preserved in good conditions in local libraries in Lagos or Accra, it probably suggests something of a misrecognition of their true value. For materials printed by local presses between the late 1950s and 1970s to be made rare because of our austere relationship with knowledge suggests it’s time to get beyond colonial legacies and the coloniality of postcolonial existence which are sometimes seen as singularly dictating the rarity of epistemic forms.

Books become rare in Nigeria because of other social and cultural attitudes to knowledge itself. Even popular narratives in music, Nollywood films, and even from university campuses sometimes betray our belittling of books and rare books. Not that we don’t think they are important; they are just a means to a materialist end of, and if other alternatives exist, why bother? The history of rare books may be deeply connected to the history of the printed book itself, but their meanings in some African countries become articulated with social, cultural, and political structures that sometimes sideline their value. And a continually diminished African agency remains the most obvious sign of this entanglement.

The real story of Dr. Suhr-Sytsma’s rare inheritance posted on Twitter is how it also comes to symbolize another reminder of the migrant archives of African knowledges. But since I would be remiss to suggest that it is the fault of non-Nigerian scholars abroad to be in possession of Nigeria’s rare books, I do need to recognize the fact that the tweet of a rare ANA anthology in the US also invites the rest of us to do more with the private collections of a much earlier generation of Nigerian book collectors. I am sure I am not the only one whose grandfather valued books. Many of us, as Túbọ̀sún’s journal also indicates, fondly remember the roadside sellers of rare books of our childhood as well as the personal libraries and collections of our parents and grandparents in Lokoja, Bodija, Makurdi and elsewhere. Perhaps it’s time to visit home again. There might be rare treasures waiting for us.

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