By Royal Shariyf
At war with growing multimedia mass distraction, though not insurmountable, booksellers and writers face a perpetual challenge. These days, getting an unaccustomed public to take up a book is an obstacle to overcome.
But at the recent Harlem Book Fair, its seventh annual, where a cascade of conversations swirled down 135th Street amid over 250 booths, thousands of books, story telling, readings, panel discussions, and opportunities to meet authors, it seemed perfectly normal to be among the reading class. From time to time, there even arose this vaguely familiar and vitally important theme, to reach and perhaps even teach youth through reading.
Some years ago, “Reading is fun-damental,” overheard much on television, was a catchy phrase that took root. RIF was an organization based on a thoughtful premise to motivate children to read by working with them, their parents, and community members to make reading a fun and beneficial part of everyday life.
That contest, in current form, spurred Thomas Webb, a teacher, to purchase a booth at the fair and distribute his Ghetto Short Stories. Webb became a first-time author on the worthy chance it might afford him yet another plank to reach Lower East Side seventh and eighth graders whose attention, he says, often is directed elsewhere. “Teenagers who are reluctant readers will read a story if it sounds like something they are familiar with and hooks their interest from the start,” he said. Webb, who has come to see the lifestyle of many New York City teenagers as a state-of-emergency has taught nearly six years, and writes about harsh inner-city situations aimed at “feeling familiar and being interesting” to the reader. Another tactic designed to reach youthful minds employing reading strictly ‘as play’ aims where their attention is inarguably most high. . . . at the center of their musical tastes. Daria Skeet, another educator, and former high school and elementary teacher, created Hip Hop Word Search, a poster-sized puzzle, which lets players pick out Jay Z and P. Diddy so-dubbed performers from a jumble of letters.” There is always plenty room for new ways of teaching,” Skeet said, armed to the teeth in her quest to increase reading ability among today’s teens by any means necessary.
Featured on four stages were spoken word poets, celebrities, and music throughout the day. Food vendors and craft sellers helped to create a bazaar-like atmosphere in the largest book fair of its kind. Panel discussions wisely were kept indoors in the air-conditioned Schomburg Center that provided a cool respite from the hotter than July temperature under the sun. Those at home were able to get a flavor watching Book-TV. Max Rodriguez, CEO and founder of the Harlem Book Fair, was again successful in gaining national coverage.
Hilary Beard, author of Venus and Serena: Serving From the Hip and of Success Never Smelled So Sweet about Brooklyn’s favorite daughter, Lisa Price, owner of Carol’s Daughter, was on the scene; as was Michael Eric Dyson, no stranger to controversy, whose prolific biographies cover icons such as Dr. King, Marvin Gaye, Tupac, and Malcolm X. He and wife, Marcia, fellow author, were among a list of notable writers present. Dyson took little time inside charging up an audience discussing his recent book, Is Bill Cosby Right: or Has the Middle Class Lost Its Mind.
Lesser known and first-time authors like Anasa Maat, whose Little Bit Of Honey offers cultural recipes about love relationships and borrows from antiquity; Fay Daley, whose A Call To Fast gives step-by-step instructions to healthy fasting and other nutrition clues were in an orbit among other book, magazine, and literary wheels who seemed right at home at the fair. Estimates of over 40,000 visitors had a wide variety of books to choose from at cut-rate prices. Significantly, an increasing number of titles on display from prior years suggest a decided trend toward perhaps less literary works. Easy-to-read, poorly conceived urban romances with heavy sexual content have become noticeably popular.
But a favorite there, too, was brother Rahim. Perhaps you know him?
Once, brother “Rahims” in small shops and on street corners in cities across the country sold us books with near exclusivity when mainstream publishing houses and bookstores maintained a mostly “whites-only” policy. Brother Rahim was the alternative recourse. His was a selection of carefully chosen books, as if plucked from his own personal library (sometimes they were), sold more as tributes to Black culture and contributions to Black collective understanding than as mere items of commerce. The slightest comment to brother Rahim was taken as an open invitation to pour from his vast storehouse of knowledge and recommend must-read titles. Invariably, brother Rahim loved books and was always a voracious reader himself and it showed..
“I’m been selling books for 18 years,” said brother Rahim at the Harlem Book Fair soberly. It’s in-part for the monetary, but it’s really to get the word out.”
But, it will take an army of foot soldiers just like him to turn the tide.