Gabriel seizing the illiterate man, alone and fasting in a cave, and commanding read, the man saying I can’t, Gabriel seizing him tighter, commanding read, the man gasping I don’t know how, Gabriel squeezing him so tight he couldn’t breathe, squeezing out the air of protest, the air of doubt, crushing it out of his crushable human body, saying read in the name of your lord who created you from a clot, and thus: literacy. Revelation.
—’The Miracle’ by Kaveh Akbar
According to our Islamic tradition, the first revelation began with the angel Gabriel appearing before the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), and commanding him to read. Islam begins with an emphasis on this act. So, the way I see it, literacy is worship.
Before I was ever a writer, I was a reader. I was compelled by my faith and my upbringing…and eventually, compelled by my irrepressible desire for the damn thing. The practice of critical, intentional reading is necessary to the practice of writing.
In the chaos and uncertainty of current times, and perhaps surprisingly to some, I’ve found it difficult to read for a while now. I have been unable to find sustained time or focus to do it in any meaningful way.
In the churn of capitalism and its hyper-productivity, between the want to stay relevant and the need to pay rent in this housing crisis, the pressure to say yes to everything and the need to stay healthy, and other such conflicting enterprises, it has been increasingly difficult to take pause, play, reflect, unclog—read.
The C word (Covid) reminded me of the importance of ritual, which is emphasised, among other things, in Islam. It is ritual-like prayer and fasting that have taught me to be present, to take my time, to resist societal structures founded on and addicted to productivity at the expense of what I value (connection, community, well-being).
As a lapsed reader, I realised I needed a ritual and some reinforcements: a book club—to create space for and promote intentional/mindful reading, as well as reading in community—as ritual.
In the span of a year, I now find myself part of three different book clubs.
The first book club is fiction and most of our picks so far have been contemporary Australian authors (Every Version of You by Grace Chan and Tracy Lien’s All That’s Left Unsaid are highlights; next up is Zeynab Gamieldien’s new book, The Scope of Permissibility, and after that, it’s safe to say it will be I’m a Fan by Sheena Patel, given the strong backing in the group).
Rather unintentionally, the second book club is solely non-fiction and we’re reading books on psychology, philosophy and financial literacy (such well-rounded people we are!). It’s my turn to suggest next, and very relevant to this piece, I have chosen How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell (Her offering at the Sydney Writers’ Festival Storytelling Gala last May was sobering).
The third is a decolonial reading book club, which should be mandatory for settlers in the context of colony. Black artists and thinkers have put forward countless essential Fist Nations Voices reading lists and reading lists on settler colonialism, which should be the basis for book clubs like these. I also appreciate that this book club is hybrid, unlike the other two, because of the accessibility, and because I am less likely to miss a session if I can jump on Zoom every now and then after a long day at work.
Appropriately, our last pick was Lorgia García-Peña’s Community as Rebellion, a meditation on creating liberatory spaces for students and faculty of color within academia. This is also why we formed a specifically decolonial book club in the first place: for critical reading, relief, for connecting with community across the various institutions in which we work, and for discourse beyond the confines of those institutions.
As readers of colour, more than ever we are seeing ourselves on bookshelves and in bookstores, on the audiobook apps and shows based on books—but still nowhere near enough (our biggest literary exports in mainstream global markets remain predominantly White).
These book clubs allow us to curate our own curricula through choosing specific writers and supporting them materially by buying and borrowing their books, in pursuit of reading, critiquing, and creating consciousness.
It’s not unreasonable to say that the growing (virtual) book club scene is what floated the publishing industry through the pandemic. Beyond the Oprah and Reese effect, local book clubs and book influencers on social media platforms have been so influential that they have the power to decide which books get published.
Book clubs aren’t frivolous as they’ve been denounced and dismissed; they are a gateway for readers to be transformed by books.
Noname’s book club starts with the following manifesto:
We operate in the legacy of Martin Sostre and other revolutionaries who have fought for access to radical text while incarcerated. We believe books to be amazing tools of liberation and portals into other worlds, new ways of being in relation to each other, and roadmaps for a future where we can all be free.
For grassroots organisations such as We are the Mainstream’s Get Lit book club (whose inaugural session started with Dr Chelsea Watego’s Another Day in the Colony) and Brisbane Free University’s Radical Reading Group, reading is a ‘revolutionary act’. American novelist Toni Morrison spoke of this in the context of segregation. Black people weren’t allowed to be in schools or be taught reading, and the Bible was the only book available to them.
Historically, book clubs have been subversive. They are a way to create what Ghassan Hage calls ‘alter spaces’: public spaces that cross racial, gender and class lines and are accessible to those locked out for so long by supremacist, structural obstacles and cultural gatekeepers. Book clubs and reading circles go back to the 1700s (some records say earlier) and played a crucial role in furthering the antislavery movement and women’s emancipation.
In a hyper-fast world swelling with misinformation, shrinking information (we only have time to read headlines and Tweets, or whatever they’re called now), and the oppressive gatekeeping of information, intentional, critical reading is still revolutionary. It is a rupture, and a community of readers is a series of ruptures.
According to bell hooks, literacy is essential to the future of the feminist movement because a lack of reading, writing and critical skills serves to exclude many women and men from feminist consciousness. This is the foundational pillar of literacy movements like Sweatshop in Western Sydney, who also run regular reading/writing groups. Such movements have long had material socio-political implications: they offer spaces to interrogate traditional frameworks of knowledge, navigate and uproot oppressive structures, and cultivate an intimacy between readers.
Whether I’m sitting in a small community classroom or around my friend Miran’s kitchen table, whether I’ve hopped into a virtual room or hopped onto the T8 back home, these are my places of worship, where I am awakened time and again by the restorative powers only found reading books.
Sara M Saleh is an award-winning writer/poet, human rights lawyer, and the daughter of migrants from Palestine, Egypt, and Lebanon. Her debut novel Songs for the Dead and the Living was published by Affirm Press in September 2023 and her poetry collection The Flirtation of Girls/Ghazal el-Banat is forthcoming (UQP 2023). She is co-editor of the groundbreaking 2019 anthology Arab, Australian, Other and her poems, short stories, and essays have been widely published nationally in English and Arabic. Sara made history as the first poet to win both the Australian Book Review‘s 2021 Peter Porter Poetry Prize and the Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize 2020. She lives on Bidjigal land with her partner and their cats, Cappy and Lola.