Egyptian online initiative to encourage book readership

The “I-Read” initiative is attracting tens of thousands of followers from various age groups but particularly young people seeking cultural opportunities.
Sunday 12/08/2018
Unique  approach. Shirine Rashed, founder of the “I-Read” initiative.              (Al Arab)
Unique approach. Shirine Rashed, founder of the “I-Read” initiative. (Al Arab)

CAIRO - In many Arab cities, programmes are established to encourage culture and reading among children. The plans are popular and relatively well-received considering alarming statistics showing that an Arab citizen reads on average 11 pages per year.

One such effort is the “I-Read” initiative begun in Cairo by a young novelist. It is attracting tens of thousands of followers from various age groups but particularly young people seeking cultural opportunities.

Shirine Rashed, who is behind the initiative, said she wanted I-Read to become global so readers in the Arab world could connect with people sharing the same passion for books in other places around the world.

Rashed conducted several studies about reading in Arab societies and discovered a huge gap between readers and people of culture in the Arab world and their counterparts elsewhere.

“I measured the degree of people’s interest in reading by looking at several factors, the first of which was the percentage of bookshops and publishing houses. These are commercial cultural entities that have their own methods for keeping track of the types and volumes of their sales. By studying those figures, I identified trends in readers’ intellectual leanings and activities,” she said.

“I also looked at special studies by other entities, such as the UNESCO, regarding ratios of reading, education and university degrees.”

Rashed said the reading ratio in the Arab world was less than 2%, indicating a need for initiatives with multiple goals. The first was to motivate young people towards reading and nourish their curiosity to cultivate good taste. The second goal was to create channels of communication between readers and writers.

Rashed said she determined that adults and older people in her sample read for about 20 minutes per day, mostly reading the Quran or newspapers. Young people reported an average 3 hours a day reading, although 90% of that time was reading social media. Rashed said that led her to focus on how to use young people’s enthusiasm for social media to get them to read in the wider sense of the term.

Rashed pointed out that digital technology was like a hammer; one can use it to build or destroy. So, she used the Facebook platform to introduce I-Read.

She posted video clips of famous people in literature, the arts and public life talking about how reading had affected and changed their lives. She appealed to personalities, such as her husband, writer Ahmed Murad and film stars Asar Yassine, Marwan Hamed and Majid al-Kadwani, who are popular with younger audiences. In addition to the video clips, Rashed posted quotes from works by famous Arab writers.

An example of the potential success of such endorsement is that sales of Mark Manson’s book “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” picked up in Egypt after the publication of a picture of Egyptian football star Mohamed Salah reading the book.

Rashed said I-Read received excellent reactions from Egyptian cultural circles. Some cultural institutions wanted to support the initiative. That included audiobook platform and “My-book” digital publishers so Rashed put audio and digital books on the I-Read Facebook page.

She also began literary competitions for unpublished writers. The response was phenomenal. In the Short Novel Competition, more than 400 works were submitted. The best 20 submissions were to be published in a collection by Dar Al-Riwaq Publishers. The stories were posted on the initiative’s page for its audience of more than 400,000 readers.

Rashed’s initiative was meant essentially for young readers but older ones were attracted to it and one of them was among the winners in the competition.

Rashed said young readers tended to favour some genres over others. They read fiction more than anything else and preferred works reflecting on the self, the nature of existence and metaphysics.

She explains the interest in fiction by their tendency to identify with the book’s heroes and their desire to escape reality. She also pointed out young people were interested in books on self-improvement, human resources development and marketing.

Rashed observed “there were slight differences in the reading tastes of audiences from different Arab countries and these are primarily due to differences in political beliefs and social customs.” She pointed out that social media platforms were instrumental in eliminating many barriers between people and cultures, as if all of humanity belonged to one country.

Rashed said famous works by the literary pioneers did not appeal to younger readers and older readers were sorry to note that.

Rashed insisted on the need for people to realise that reading and writing choices and styles are evolving from one generation to the next. She said she expected audio and digital books to eventually supplant printed books.

“The world is moving towards conservation and this means that felling trees is going to be stopped. So, whether we like it or not, the [printed] book is going to disappear one of these days. Of course, the new generations already prefer to get their reading and audio material through the internet,” she said.