Once upon a time we had an interaction with then Information Minister Mustapha Hameed in the boardroom of the Ministry of Information to discuss the anniversary celebrations of our book club in August 2017.
He spoke about the significance of reading in the life of an individual and how enthusiastic he is about books. He related that anytime he travels, a significant portion of his luggage contains books. He spoke about the value religion plays in our lives and quoted Emile Whitehead that “religion is seeking comfort in a world dispassionately considered is a terrifying wilderness”.
He boldly stated that he does not read fiction. In fact, he dislikes it. He does not see the reason why a young person should be reading fictional stories. He loves to read about lives of great men, lives that raise your hackles as a reader and influence your life as a person. Lives that push you to dare greatly and live boldly as a human being. He stated that the best book he has read is Decision Points by George W. Bush. Though I enjoyed every bit of the interaction, I disagree with his stance on fiction.
He is not the only one who holds this stance. I have met a lot of prominent readers who say they only involve themselves in non-fiction and that fictional stories add nothing of value to the greatness of life. Even great writers like Robert Louis Stevenson held that stance. He is credited to have said that “fiction is to grown men what play is to a child”. Interestingly, by the end of his life he had produced a great range of fiction – from historical adventure stories and swashbuckling romances to gothic-style horror stories.
The reason I disagree is well captured by my grandfather, Chinua Achebe. In one of his wonderfully written essays, he argued: “How often do we hear people say, ‘Oh I don’t have the time to read novels’, implying that fiction is frivolous? They would generally add – lest you consider them illiterate – that they read histories or biographies, which they presume to be more appropriate for serious-minded adults. Such people are to be pitied; they are like a six-cylinder car that says: ‘Oh, I can manage all right on three spark-plugs thank you very much’. Well, it may manage somehow; but it would sound like an asthmatic motorcycle! The life of the imagination is a vital element of our total nature. If we starve or pollute it, the quality of our life is depressed or soiled”. Let that sink in.
The gale of imagination that fiction provides a reader cannot be over-emphasised. Fiction allows you and me to leap over whatever barriers you are facing as an individual. Mandela says he was able to survive his 27-year jail term by reading Things Fall Apart – the greatest literary piece produced in Africa till date. And the story was created in the mind of an individual with a great and solid imagination that has gone on to shape how Africans look at themselves, and re-directed and continues to change how the West looks upon Africa. Fiction allows you to travel in worlds both seen and unseen, real and imaginary.
Fiction allows you to rediscover the ancient past and gives you access into the tombs with great Pharaohs of Egypt. It makes you see the future. One writer stated that in reading fiction she cheered for the good guys, sneered at the villains, and cried real tears when her favourite literary character, Atticus Finch from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ stood his ground. She said she saw the face of death and heard the voice of despair, only to find hope on the very next page.
So, I love fiction. And one of the greatest fictional stories ever written was by the French Novelist Jules Verne. In 1872, he published an adventure novel, Around the World in Eighty Days. This book was very much accepted by the literary world and later influenced voyages in real life around the world. He wrote the book at a time when he was in much distress and difficulty. His previous work did not pay his royalties, he was conscripted as a Coastguard, and he lost his dad and witnessed a very disturbing public execution. Yet he was able to produce a book that would shape the literary world, theatre, games, the Internet and even existing travel restrictions of his time. A lot of people have successfully circumnavigated the world in 80 days and less, taking profound inspiration from the book.
I first read it as a young boy in Junior High School and became so enthralled by it. That is after I had watched the 2004 movie-adaptation of it starring martial arts star Jackie Chan. So immediately I saw it on the Booknook.store website, I chose it so the youth from my community could also savour its contents. Our book club was nominated as a beneficiary of the ‘Adopt a Book Club’ promotion that the bookstore was running, and we had to chance to select books worth GH¢400. And this book was part of it.
The first person to borrow the book and read it was Reader Zenatu Inusah, a Reader at Success Book Club. And the follwing captures her review:
REVIEW BY ZENATU
From a very tender age, I developed a great interest in reading about the earth, what makes up the earth and how the world keeps evolving at an interesting rate.
This birthed my wild enthusiasm about travelling to other parts of the world, being introduced to other cultures and trying new things from all over the world.
My fascination for reading everything about the earth led me to discover the prolific French author, poet and playwright whose writings laid much emphasis on the earth and modern science-fiction.
One of his greatest classics, ‘Journey to the centre of the earth’, was the first book I read by Jules Verne.
Somewhere last week, a friend who happens to be executive secretary of Success Book Club, a reading club I recently joined, posted that he had some books we could borrow.
Among the books was Jules Verne’s ‘Around the world in 80 days’, which was like rekindling feelings with an old lover.
The book is an adventure novel about a wealthy Englishman, Phileas Fogg of London, who attempts to circumnavigate the world in 80 days in a gamble set by his friends at the Reform Club. Despite his wealth, Fogg lives a modest life with habits carried out with mathematical precision. Very little could be said about his social life, other than being a member of the Reform Club.
At the Reform Club, Fogg gets involved in an argument over an article in the daily telegraph – that with the opening of a new railway section in India, it was now possible to travel around the world in 80 days. He accepts a wager that is equivalent to £1,798,872 – half of his total fortune – from his fellow club members to complete such a journey within this time period. Fogg hires a Frenchman named Passepartout as a servant, with whom he embarks on the gamble of journeying around the world in 80 days. They depart from London by train at 8:45pm on 2 October, and in order to win the wager he must return to the club by the same time on 21 December, 80 days later. They take the remaining £20,000 of Fogg’s fortune with them to cover expenses during the journey.
Fogg and Passepartout reach Suez in time. While disembarking in Egypt, they are watched by a policeman – Detective Fix, who has been dispatched from London in search of a bank robber. Since Fogg fits the vague description given of the robber, Detective Fix mistakes him for the criminal. But as he cannot secure a warrant in time, Detective Fix boards the steamer conveying the travellers to Bombay and becomes acquainted with Passepartout without revealing his purpose.
After reaching India, they take a train from Bombay to Calcutta. Fogg learns that the daily telegraph article was wrong: an 80-kilometre stretch of rail track has not yet been built. Fogg purchases an elephant, hires a guide and continues his journey.
They come across a procession in which a young Indian woman, Aouda, is to be sacrificed. They delay, save the woman and take her along with them.
The detective gets Fogg and Passepartout arrested. They jump bail and Fix, the detective, follows them to Hong Kong. He shows himself to Passepartout, who is delighted to again meet his travelling companion from the earlier voyage without knowing the detective’s agenda or his identity.
Still without a warrant, Fix sees Hong Kong as his last chance to arrest Fogg on British soil. Passepartout becomes convinced that Fix is a spy from the Reform Club. Fix confides in Passepartout, who does not believe a word and remains convinced that his master is not a bank robber. To prevent Passepartout from informing his master about the premature departure of their next vessel, Fix gets Passepartout drunk and drugs him in an opium den. Passepartout still manages to catch the steamer to Yokohama, but is not able to inform Fogg that the steamer is leaving the evening before its scheduled departure date. After several hurdles, they reunite in Yokohama.
In San Francisco, they board a train heading to New York, encountering a number of obstacles along the way which result in them missing the ship heading to England. Fogg bribes the crew on a steamboat and heads to Liverpool. Against hurricane winds and going at full steam, the boat runs out of fuel after a few days. Through all these, they manage to arrive in England on 19th December – where Aouda confesses she is in love with Fogg and asks him to marry her.
The journey has all the obstacles one could encounter as a voyager, but in the end Fogg won his bet by actually journeying around the world in 78 days instead of the 80 days they agreed on – and got a wife as bonus, and a great friend in his servant.
Overall, the book touches on almost every aspect of our humaneness. An interesting adventure met with lots of disappointments, perfection and mperfection, friendship and loyalty while taking us through how life was lived in the 19th century – when the British were actively gathering their colonies.
This novel also teaches us about the interconnection of all the continents and oceans while giving us a vivid account of how a man who believes in his capabilities overcomes a lot of obstacles and does what many assume is impossible and comes out triumphant.
NB: The Writer is a Youth-Activist and the Executive Secretary of Success Book Club. Zenatu is a National Service personnel at AKSA Energy and doubles as a student at KNUST. She is an Electrical Technician Engineer who loves fictional novels and hopes to travel around the world.