The Department of Library Services and the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Pretoria (UP) recently hosted the annual Mind-Altering Books webinar. The event is typically held in recognition of National Book Week, which runs from 2 to 8 September annually, and is hosted to inculcate a culture of reading within the UP community.
During the event, panellists are given an opportunity to present a book that they found mind-altering. As this year’s gathering could not be held in the Merensky 2 Library’s auditorium, the organisers hosted it online, with just over 100 people tuning in to the webinar on the day. This year, all the panellists chose novels, much to the surprise of some of the members in the audience.
The webinar was moderated by Professor Molly Brown, Head of the Department of English at UP. She was joined by Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe; Dean of the Faculty of Law Professor Elsabe Schoeman; Professor Fraser McNeill of the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology; and Dr Nedine Moonsamy, senior lecturer in the English Department.
Prof Kupe chose a book by Ousmane Sembène titled God’s Bits of Wood. The novel, which is inspired in part by the Senegalese writer’s upbringing and professional life at the height of the colonial era in the 1940s, focuses on events surrounding a railroad strike that affected a railway line that runs from Dakar to Koulikoro, known as the Dakar-Niger Railway. Prof Kupe recalled that when he was doing his master’s degree in Literature, this book was one of four that he had read and that it has been one of his favourites ever since.
“God’s Bits of Wood is one of the eminent feminist works in African literature,” he said. “At its heart is a representation of how women gain consciousness and participate in this strike, which is ostensibly led by male workers who work on the railway line. One of the major themes in this novel is resilient solidarity.”
Professor Tawana Kupe was impressed by how Ousmane Sembène represented the positive influence of women in his novel God’s Bits of Wood.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante takes place in Naples after World War II, and was chosen by Professor Elsabe Schoeman. What stood out for her was the way in which the lives of two young girls who grew up together eventually diverged and became polarised. Prof Schoeman also cited how the book exemplifies why libraries and reading in general are so important in the lives of young children. The fact that nobody really knows anything about the author is what was mind-altering about this book for her.
“There are many books about brilliant women, but this one is different,” she said. “First of all, it is written, I believe, by a woman – nobody really knows who Elena Ferrante is. There have been many theories and many experiments have been undertaken in order to identify her by analysing the text; but I have stopped reading all those articles because I don’t want to know who she is. It was the first time that I’d read a book without having known anything about the author before reading the book. I have now realised that it is not necessary to know all about the author.”
Professor Elsabe Schoeman said that after having read My Brilliant Friend, she would like to visit Naples again, which is where the story is set.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson was Professor Fraser McNeill’s pick. He said that the book had a profound impact on him, partly because of the author’s use of a writing style known as “gonzo”, a type of “personal journalism” that often includes the reporter as part of the story and which was popularised by Thompson.
“I keep on getting something different from it every time,” says Professor Fraser McNeill of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson.
“When I read this book for the first time, I was blown away by the extent to which somebody could tell a story in different ways,” Professor McNeill said. “I read it before I became an anthropologist and I have read it continuously throughout my anthropological career, and I keep on getting something different from it every time. It changes the way I see things around me.”
Dr Moonsamy, who is also a writer and is due to release a novel later this year, presented The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola. She described it as an “innovative African fantasy” and a “post-colonial allegory”. What struck Dr Moonsamy about the book was the writer’s personal story and the impact that this novel had not only in Africa, but globally too.
Not only is Dr Nedine Moonsamy an avid reader, she is also a writer. She released her debut novel, The Unfamous Five, last year.