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Read widely and challenge the world

- Schalk Mouton

Ivan Vladislavić, Distinguished Professor in Wits University’s Creative Writing Department, addresses graduates.

The idea that a book can change your life is a cliché developed in a publisher’s marketing department. But it really does happen, more often than you’d think.

Even reading the wrong book at the right time may change lives. And often it is these books that challenge a person’s thoughts, and inspires them to greatness.

Many years ago, a 14-year-old boy asked a librarian at the Pretoria City Library to find him a copy of the play Waiting for Godot. He didn’t know what it was about. He just knew the title and, after being told to read more widely than his Louis L’amour Westerns, he thought this might be a book of interest.

The librarian was not sure about this. She scowled. “Are you sure this is the book you want?” she asked the young Ivan Vladislavić, fully aware of that the book’s tragicomedy nature had puzzled many scholars over the years. She handed it over, somewhat reluctantly.

“I remember that I read that play from cover to cover, with a sort of exhilarated incomprehension,” Vladislavić told the graduation audience of the Faculty of Humanities on Wednesday, 1 April 2015.

“Every line seemed strange and provocative, gesturing towards something extremely important, that I only half understood ... not even half ... The meaning of the thing escaped me, almost entirely. It appeared to be funny, but I was not even sure of that,” he said.

Since that day, Vladislavić dedicated his life to books. He has written eight works of fiction, three of non-fiction and has worked as an editor for several publishing houses, working with some of South Africa’s major writers.

Today, he is a Distinguished Professor in Wits University’s Creative Writing department. Reading the lines of Godot still gives him a “peculiar thrill of amazement”, said Vladislavić.

“The great gift that that perplexing, inexplicable text made to my young imagination, was the discovery that there was more going on in books, than I had been led to believe. The small stage of the book was not a reflection of the world, but a world in itself, that played with its own marvellous rules,” he said.

Like the young Vladislavić, many writers have been inspired by an “inappropriate book” or artwork, or play, which for some reason was not meant for their eyes, said Vladislavić.

This has had profound effects on them, he said, citing examples like Chris van Wyk and Njabulo Ndebele.

“Many people become more conservative in age, and read more often to have their views confirmed, than challenged - to be consoled, rather than to be unsettled,” said Vladislavić, who encouraged the graduates to read widely.

“Reading widely is a defence against the tyranny of those who wish to impose their narrow views on everyone else,” he said.

“The freedom to choose what you read is a vital one. It is inseparable from the other constitutional freedoms we enjoy. Reading deeply, is a defence against superficiality. We live in an age of distraction. Everywhere, always, we are likely to be interrupted by media, more assertive, more seductive than the written page.”

“Fewer people grapple with texts that test the limits of understanding or their imagination. Yet, this is the kind of reading that matters most.”

Vladislavić told the graduates that they have the skills and knowledge to challenge the world.

“Books have already changed your life, and I hope they will continue doing so.”