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The Hidden History of South Africa's Book and Reading Cultures
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Price: R 245
Publication Date: 2013-03-15
Binding: Softcover
ISBN: 978 1 86914 247 6
Width: 154
Height: 230
Pages: 212

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The Times Literary Supplement
15 February 2013
Review by David Finkelstein

Archie L. Dick's work focuses on what he calls 'zones of influence', reading spaces that become places of empowerment and resistance. He offers valuable insights into how minority groups in South Africa dealt with attempts to control where, what and how they read. Drawing on little-known archival sources, he begins by exploring the world of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Cape Colony reading communities, offering evidence of book ownership among indigenous and slave groups that contradicts the view that they were mostly illiterate and uneducated.

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Review by Mary Nassimbeni, Emeritus Associate Professor in the Library and Information Studies Centre, University of Cape Town, South Africa

South African Journal of Libraries and Information Science, Vol 79, No. 2


This book has a broad historical remit, ranging from the early colonial days of the Cape (1658) to the last decade of the 20th century. Its ambitious scope covers eight chapters, starting with early readers in the Cape and taking the chronology to 1992 (Chapter 7), with the final chapter exploring the theme of censorship. It concludes by “revealing the hidden books and hidden readers”, a deft touch which resonates neatly with the Introduction in which the author proposes the significance of the common reader in South Africa. Although some of the themes covered in the chapters have been published as papers in scholarly journals, the reader is not aware of any disjuncture in the flow or logic of the text as the author has carefully constructed a framing device which he presents in his Introduction, viz. the common reader.

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Review by Daniel Magaziner, Yale University

American Historical Review, June 2014

In 1972, the South African activist Steve Biko described how he read. “I rarely finish a book,” he explained. “I always go to find something from a book.” Biko was an instrumental reader; the written word was an object that he animated, according to what he and others perceived as their immediate needs. In the heat of struggle, activists like Biko read strategically and tactically—in keeping with the traditions of subaltern literacy in South Africa that Archie L. Dick explores in his important book.

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Review by Gerald Groenewald, Department of History, University of Johannesburg
Scrutiny2, 19(1) 2014.

In the conclusion to his Hidden history of South Africa’s book and reading cultures, Archie Dick quotes the lament of a nineteenth-century commentator, that “reading is not an African passion” (p. 139), a sentiment still shared by many an educator two hundred years later. Yet, as this engaging and pathbreaking book convincingly argues, a reading culture has existed in southern Africa right from its colonial inception in the seventeenth century, albeit one that was at times hidden and often contested. Dick focuses on the “common readers” and demonstrates through the use of “credible evidence … found in surprising places” that the personal act of reading has always been intimately wound up with the political context, and that reading in South Africa has always evinced a “strongly communal character” (Dick 2013: 4; 139). Although at times perhaps too strident and celebratory in tone, there is no doubt that this is a seminal book and that Dick’s achievement is certain – it now remains for other scholars to build on the research agenda that he delineates here.


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The Hidden History of South Africa's Book and Reading Cultures shows how the common practice of reading can illuminate the social and political history of a culture. This ground-breaking study reveals resistance strategies in the reading and writing practices of South Africans; strategies that have been hidden until now for political reasons relating to the country's liberation struggles.


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Southern Africa

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