Opinion

Prof Pat Utomi: How Lagos Traffic Shaped My Reading Habit

By Okechukwu Ikonne.
I am always reading more than one book at a time, and you may ask why it is so? I believe that a reading culture can evolve differently, and mine evolved around the Lagos traffic. One of the greatest privileges we have in being in a Greenwich economy is that most middle-class Nigerians have drivers and as such, traffic will pile up. So many years ago, I developed the habit of having books at the back seat of my car, such that if I enter the car and put on my seat belt, the next thing I do is pick up a book.
Because of moods and needs, I will always have about four types of books at the back seat of my car. One of the books would be on general reading like history-based and the one I am currently reading is written by an English historian called Niall Ferguson, and it is titled, “Civilisation, the West and the Rest”. It is part of the series of books I have been trying to read, to understand why the West overtook the rest of the world in terms of economic wealth.
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As part of that series, I have read one book by Financial Times editor, Alan Beattie, titled, “False Economy.” Basically, the book is looking at why Argentina went a different direction from the USA, at different stages of development, because they were at par in the 1920s.
In the general knowledge reading around why the West overtook the world; this is because of an economic interpretation of the history of the world. ‘The world is flat’ can also be included in the series of books I would also typically have at the back of my car, because I am a man of faith, a book of spiritual reading. I also carry with me electronic books, a total collection of the encyclical books of the Catholic Church and a bible at the back seat of my car.
Other general books you will typically find me reading always are biographies. Biographies are powerful ways of getting insights and reading about people and this is where you will find the likes of Lee Kuan Yew, Nelson Mandela etc, on that score. The one I am reading at the moment is the biography of Aung Sunsuukyi, the Myammar (Burma) opposition leader. I am reading these books because personal experiences are a powerful teacher. Again, typically you will find with me an academic discipline book that interests me, and in that respect, management, politics, economics (unlike before, lately I have soft-pedaled on communication theories in the last two years).
The practice is, once I get into the car, depending on my mood, I will pick one of these books. Two are of high currency at the moment, one of which is the biography of Aung Sunsuukyi. For religious reading books, I am currently reading a book on the weakness of Saints; how people became saints and what they overcame.
A comprehensive inventory of my reading list
The IMPACT is not always instant. One of the most powerful influences on me of a book came from a novelist’s autobiography many years ago. It is the autobiography of John Updike titled “Self Consciousness.” The book made me enormously self-conscious, and made me to step up the question ‘‘why am I here?’’ And many of the things I have done have now been in response to Updike’s life. It is in response to the fact that Updike’s writing is not on sociology or anything about nature. The book made me to be sensitively conscious of self. And that self-consciousness is the meaning of being.
Another book that has had such impact on me is a collection of homilies and sermons titled ‘‘Friends of God’’ written by a Spanish priest, Jose Marie Escriva, who was later canonized by Pope John Paul II. I have also completely absorbed volumes of Lee Kuan Yew memoire, From Third World to First World, Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom.
I have also read series of books on Mahatma Gandhi: another set of books I have consumed voraciously. And I have had several books on leadership and personal effectiveness. I have personally found wonderfully good, books of Stephen R. Covey, who wrote The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. By reading the book and Principle Centered Leadership, I got to know personally, the significance of the writings of Myles Monroe, who just passed away.
Apart from Dr. Monroe’s books, I have a couple of books of John Maxwell. In the areas of biographies and autobiographies, I have read quite a few of American corporate leaders, like Jack Welch, Louis Gesner jnr., who wrote, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? There is also the biography of Wole Soyinka, Set Forth at Dawn. Another text I find very interesting is the autobiography and a memoir of Chief Jerome Udoji, Under Three Masters where he talked about preindependence politics and administration of Nigeria.
People think I am some kind of genius; “but how did he know all these things?’’ It is all about reading about people like Chief Jerome Udoji and reading these volumes put together by people like Allison Ayida, Philip Asiodu, and the late Pius Okigbo’s volumes ‘In the public philosophy.’
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Suggested texts for aspiring leaders in Nigeria
Different leadership books would be quite relevant. Certainly, Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography should be top on that list. I believe he who wants to lead must develop his reading capacity and experience. Here at the Centre for Values in Leadership (CVL), we have volume of books called Leadership compendium. Just looking at the lives of these people in these books will be very helpful to any leader. Books of people like Steven Covey will help with discipline because we lack it here in Nigeria.
Panaceas to Nigeria’s dismal reading culture The changing system in the society will determine what people will do. If those who get honoured are people who don’t read then it doesn’t encourage people to read. If those who get rich are people who don’t read, then people will begin to wonder, ‘‘what are we reading for?” So, incentives are very important; we need to have the infrastructure for making reading easy. We used to have libraries in those days. In my time, typical stories like ‘boy meets girl,’ reading a story of library, meeting a girl in a library and one day she is your wife. In all, one thing that needs to be done is, there is the need to build the habit early.
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Parents should prevent their children from watching television all the time; children should be prevented from falling in love with all these gadgets. Families need to have ground rules; say Mondays to Fridays, between X time to Y time, the television must be switched off. In our time, when we were in high school, we used to compete who would have read a certain number of James Hadley Chase and other known literatures.
Then we read voraciously. As a high school student, and undergraduate in the early 70s, I read Times magazine and Newsweek cover to cover every week. That is why the first time I challenged policy makers on foreign policy issue in 1975, they were stunned to realize the depths of my knowledge of issues in Angola, Mozambique and Namibia. Each time I read Times magazine and Newsweek, then, I could imagine what goes on globally.
So, parents can also reward their children and decide what their wards do, at their formative stage of life.

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