Several months back, when I was talking to former Dar el Shorouk, current BQFP head Seif Salmawy, I said that books are too expensive for (most) Egyptians. Salmawy countered with the amount of money Egyptians spend on mobile-phone services each month. I can’t remember that figure, but I do remember that Egyptian smokers (40 percent of the total male population) spend about 110LE, or $20U.S., on cigarette purchases each month.
I still think there’s a price-point problem with books—or maybe it’s a library problem, and definitely it’s a distribution problem—but then I wondered:
What if cigarettes (magically) disappeared from the Egyptian market, and everyone (magically decided to) spend the money on books?*
And yes, this is a children’s-lit blog. I can use magical thinking here.
- In 48 hours, heart attacks decrease across the nation. Emergency rooms notice the difference. All nicotine leaves Egyptian bodies, and smokers’ sense of taste and smell return to a normal level. (After the return of smell, presumably the garbage-burning problem will need to be tackled.)
- Yes, everyone is fairly cranky for a week or two. But it’s nothing most haven’t done during Ramadan.
- But with the extra 110LE in the first month, parents buy one book for each member of the family (as long as they’re not new releases or expensive English-language imports). Maybe two or three for the kids, if they’re 5LE Fizo books, for instance. At first, maybe most children don’t read them; they watch TV or play outside. We won’t expect change overnight.
- Yes, people in the cigarette business lose their jobs. But they are subsumed into the new book-production business: book hawkers, book-factory workers, book-store managers, and so on.
- Within months, fewer children are born with low birth weight. Fewer children develop asthma, ear infections, and other health problems. The family savings on health care is re-invested in…books.
- Within three months, heart attacks due to second-hand smoke inhalation decrease. Women’s health improves. Health-care professionals have more free time. They can bring books to work.
- Oh, sure, we’ll need to have e-books in here somewhere. (Now that everyone’s getting excited about books, we could have something like the “one kindle per child” program in Ghana?) Books on mobile phones. Book programs on television. Book-oriented video games. Everyone will want to jump on the book bandwagon.
- Within a year, many children are smarter. Adults, too. After all, book owners have smarter children.
- A more highly literate population demands public libraries, begins to write more books, think more critically.
After this, anything is possible…happily ever afters and rainbows galore!
*Of course, this is also inspired by George Orwell’s famous essay, “Books v. Cigarettes,” although Orwell certainly didn’t know the half of it. A thank you to Robin Yassin-Kassab for emailing me the Orwell essay.