The Coal City Book Convention (CCBC) is an annual event organized by the Delta Book Club which its founder Dillibe Onyeama, an author and publisher, states is "to celebrate literary excellence among the Igbo people of Nigeria." This year's CCBC, its fourth edition, saw a large turnout at the Ofu Obi Africa Centre in Enugu, including Chief Sir Gabriel Akachukwu, Professor Sam Ukpabi, Professor Anezi Okoro, Professor John Eze, Chief Sir Nduka Eya and Mr Dillibe Onyema.
Its theme was “What Is Your Story? An Integrated Analysis of the Book in Every Man,” and Professor Ukpabi , the former chairman of the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board (JAMB) delivered the keynote address titled ‘The Book in Every Man’. Professor Ukpabi began by pointing to the central position that books occupy "in the development of the mental capacities of humanity and the awe-inspiring inventions, discoveries and technological developments around us," such that a world without books is inconceivable. He then traced the history of the book from the clay tablets of the ancient Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians and Hittites to the papyrus rolls of the ancient Egyptians; from books printed from wooden blocks by the Chinese to the paper manuscripts of fifteenth century Europe. By the sixteenth century, Ukpabi stated that "the book had made possible a revolution in thought and scholarship through the capacity of the press to multiply copies of the same book" and by the 1900s with the advent of paperback editions, the position of the book as a power tool for the transmission of knowledge and information was firmly established. Professor Ukpabi also mentioned that in the Eastern region of Nigeria in the nineteenth century, "a system of writing and records developed totally independent of assistance from outside. This was the Nsibidi which was the reduction into writing of the sign language used by such secret societies as the Ekpe, Ukpotio, Ukwa and IsongEsil among the Ekoi ethnic group who lived on both banks of the Cross River. From there this writing spread to some parts of Igboland and was also found among the Efik and Ibibio people." Unfortunately, because Nsibidi was used by secret societies, it did not become universal nor evolve into a proper text. Referring to the title of his address - 'The Book in Every Man' - Professor Ukpabi suggested that there are two approaches to considering the meaning of this phrase: one is "to see it in the context of every person having a story to tell or communication to make which will be of interest to many, and so can form the basis for writing a book, 'while the other is to see it as 'an accomplished man who had gone through rigorous education or training in which he has had to read so many books that his whole life and personality have been conditioned by such books." The book in every man means therefore that there is a story in every man; that there exists a particular worldview, an opinion which every man has within him, formed by his experiences and reflections which he can share with others by writing a book. It can also mean the amount of knowledge a man is able to attain which will then reside within him and form his character by virtue of his having read a vast number of books. Professor Ukpabi, in his address, dealt with 'the book in every man' as the accomplishments gained by prodigious reading first, and noted that "transforming a person through books should begin from childhood." He also pointed out that "'catching the youngâ€™ is a statement that has stood the test of time and quite appropriate in learning and reading." This point is worth noting because 'catching the young' is at the core of many of the projects of the Zaccheus Onumba Dibiaezue Memorial Libraries, including CATHY and the OASIS libraries.
While Ukpabi believes that books must be introduced as early as possible in order to get a child accustomed to the vast knowledge they contain and to reinforce the importance of the pursuit of learning through reading, he laments that "most of our citizens are so poor and so unlettered that such thoughts as spending the little money available to buy books for children cannot cross their minds." Nonetheless, so critical is the need to connect children to books that Ukpabi views those able to introduce the book as a companion to their children but fail to do so as doing them a great disservice, for "a child who grows up to appreciate that books can be good companions will eventually become an avid reader." Ukpabi blames the poor academic performance of students at Nigerian universities and other tertiary institutions on this neglect of childhood reading and recounts that in October 2012, PhD theses written by graduates of Nigerian universities were reviewed by a committee of eminent professors in order to determine those which attained high standards and could be reproduced as text books. The committee reported that of the one hundred and fifty theses they studied only eleven were suitable for publication as textbooks. He considers this outcome not to be surprising because "the book, which is central to learning, teaching and research, is sidelined." Ukpabi noted that "the book is very crucial in the 'making' of man' and 'the 'book' in a man determines his ability to cope with the complexities of every-day life and to succeed in his undertakings." Books, therefore, take people to places they have never been to and "reading can make a man a citizen of the world...by reading many books on different interests a person can become an all-round man whose wide knowledge can make him really useful no matter what part of the world he finds himself in." Ukpabi dwelt briefly on the impact of computers and the internet on books and reading, observing that most of the information on the internet comes in the first place from books and "nothing can take the place of finding a favourite quiet spot to curl up and read a good book." By interpreting 'the book in every man' to mean "every person having a story to tell," Ukpabi noted that "people love stories, especially those which are drawn from human experience and [that] these can make interesting reading if reduced to cold paper and ink immortality." He recalls that in pre-colonial Nigeria many festivals existed during which people were entertained with epic stories recounting great deeds and historical events and points out that "out of these stories grew the oral literature in which the past of the community was preserved." Referring to Chinua Achebe's There Was a Country, Ukpabi emphasised the importance of those having 'a story to tell' sharing those stories with the world by rendering them in print, noting that "we owe Chinua Achebe a world of gratitude" for telling us his story. The importance and power of books can never be overstated, according to Professor Ukpabi: "books can carry us away for a while, taking us to places and introducing us to people whom we might not have known otherwise. Above all, books have been instruments for social engineering, fighting societal ills like corruption and moving any nation forward." When a man is well-read, his scope and mind-set broadens; he can then in turn write his own story and share with the world the book he has in him. This in turn can serve as fodder for others and enhance their knowledge, creating and sustaining a cycle vital to the successful development of our society. Click here to read the full keynote address This piece was first posted on December 13, 2012.