There’ a book i love. It’s called Freedom and it’s written by Jonathan Franzen. It came out back in 2011 and it was probably the biggest book news of that year apart from a Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin. He was on Orprah, he was on the New York Times, and he even made the cover of the Time Magazine, Franzen I mean. Things don’t really get much bigger for authors than that. Not nowadays. It was a book that was hard to get in Kenya. I had a friend who had it but she gave it to a friend who gave it to another friend who lost it and I was sad that I wouldn’t get to read this book that made such ripples. Last year I unscrupulously got my hands on it.
The second section of the book is called “mistakes were made.” It’s an autobiography of one of the characters written by the character on the advice of her therapist. It was a beautiful section, but then again most of the book was beautiful. The title of the section stuck with me. “Mistakes were made” it’s a description of so much of our lives. Every day we wake up a little sadder, a little guiltier, a little less happy we know it is because mistakes were made. When we get robbed and beaten mistakes were made. When our hearts are broken or when we break other people’s hearts mistakes were made. Every time we fall and get up again mistakes were made. Every time we are late mistakes were made. In fact one way of summarising any life is mistakes were made, there’s more truth in that eulogy than in most of the things we get up and say.
Lately I’ve been reading for my oral examinations. They are these big deal exams that take at most 15 minutes where you have to wear your best suit and polish your shoes and tie your laces, then you get up in front of an interview panel that can ask you about anything you learned in the last 5 years of your law education and dip into (if they want) current issues like the teacher’s strike and the ICC and the ridiculous provisions in the marriage bill. Mine are much later than most of my class mates so I’ve been sitting home and researching on the questions they were asked, typing up answers and printing these so I can read them. There’s no time for spell check plus I really don’t feel like doing it, when I’m done all I want to do is leave the room. As a result there’s a lot of spelling and grammar mistakes. The thing I’ve been thinking the most when I read them again is mistakes were made.
I thought about it so much that I ran into Freedom being sold by one of those booksellers dotted across the city. I’ve made books appear before just by thinking about them, most notably White Teeth by Zadie Smith some time last year. It’s a thing that can happen if you are perfectly willing to ascribe meaning to coincidence and as nearly all of us started off religious so we can do it.
There’s a lot of talk on the internet about the disappearing of bookshops and bookstores. This is a purely western problem occasioned by digital stores and the proliferation of e-book readers. Books are on their death knell, or I should say books as we know them. The Greeks crammed everything into their minds, reeds were used as well as walls and papyrus. Paper is just one in a long line representing the evolution of how the written word is passed. We probably won’t be alive when we see this happening but books will disappear, except right now when I walk through the streets of Nairobi I feel like I have never had such access to so many books before.
Walk through town, down any street you will find a bookseller. On the ground will be his wares, spread out for all to see and rummage through. They are there from the morning till the sun sets. Pretty soon you don’t have to stop for a long time to know if you will find what you are looking for, some sell romance, some thrillers and the best hard to find classics. I can’t help stopping even when I know I have enough, even when I know I can’t really afford another book.
I remember going to meet friends for lunch once and spending all my money on books so all I could afford was fare home. They aren’t expensive and for most of my life I couldn’t afford books so I think I’m being greedy now. Where could I get over 1,000 shillings without specifically planning a trip to the bookstore, now I can’t walk around without tripping over one of these books. It makes me wonder about all these people who say Kenyans don’t read. I remember a few years ago I could buy a movie or a series at 50 shillings and a book cost 20 times more. In such a situation it isn’t hard to imagine that people chose what they could afford. Now though we can have books and it happens that people will crowd around these mini-bookstores and search for a title or let it search for them. I love getting on my knees with this sense of possibility that I could find something good. Every time I find something that I like I say thank you to them. And this post is also just to say thank you. Thank you for the freedom to read.