BookBedonnerd: The road to elsewhere: a review

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Title: BookBedonnerd: The road to elsewhere
Author: Darryl Earl David
ISBN: 9780796109279

The master of organising book festivals, Darryl Earl David, is Book bedonnerd. BookBedonnerd: The road to elsewhere is the title of his monograph about his journey from love and languages, Afrikaans in particular, to organising Book Towns, in the Karoo mostly. The book is funny, caustic and at times even tragic. Often, it reads like an endearing Karoo town travelogue. I know, because on my way to the Etienne van Heerden Veldsoirée 2023, I tested out the back roads David drove with his beloved Honda Civic, which, it should be mentioned, is also one of the characters of this book. My partner and I found it very pleasing to encounter the quiet and quaint beauty of old Karoo towns, especially their old architecture. David says:

When I started out on this journey, I had a blueprint in my mind for a PhD. I don’t know how, but the title Literary tourism: Mapping a biography of a nation was one that I loved. (222)

In essence, the journey began when he chose to study Afrikaans, which, it must be admitted, was a little strange for an Indian boy in the ’80s. When the University of Durban Westville (where he worked in the Afrikaans department) merged with the University of Natal, his hellish journey out of academia began. David pulls no punches in his tale-telling about this process, which rendered redundant many posts in his department. Professor Makgoba comes out as a villain of the misconstrued and mishandled transformations of the process. I have heard, through the green flies, that Makgoba’s bio will be out soon. I am sure this may give an interested reader the opportunity to hear about the process from another perspective. Suffice to say that David’s redundancy led to the idea of implementing his Book Town concept:

The more I read about Hay-on-Wye on the border of Wales and that genius, Richard Booth, the maverick who turned it into a Book Town with just one bookshop and promptly pronounced himself as the King of Hay and even created the town’s own currency, the more I knew I wanted to be Richard Booth. An Indian Richard Booth. A South African Richard Booth. … People often ask me, “Darryl, tell us, how did you manage to create a Book Town and so many book festivals?” I always tell them it was born out of great unhappiness and immense misery during my UKZN years. (23, 26)

As an “incurable dreamer”, David was on his way to the third love of his life, after his wife and daughter – book festivals.

After a rather thorough and thoughtful process of elimination regarding which town to choose – Hanover (Olive Schreiner once lived there), Cradock, Philippolis, Sutherland – Richmond took the prize as the first Book Town in the Karoo. It had all the required ingredients. After overcoming secondary racism from estate agents – David bitterly complains about Pam Golding in particular – he was able to buy a house in Richmond through Saag Visagie of Seeff Properties. This set him on a course of partnership with someone he calls a mad Canadian vet, Peter Baker, who had been buying several properties in the Karoo, and with whom he formed a lasting business partnership and friendship. It began with an anonymous phone call that went like this:

“I want to start a Book Town in Richmond. It will be the first in SA and the first on the African continent. Essentially, we have to create a town full of bookshops. These bookshops will in turn bring in tourists.” “Why, Richmond?” “Well, usually you choose a town in economic decline. The model of a town full of books acts as a driver of regeneration.” “Wow. That’s a whale of an idea. Let’s do it!”

After roping in John Donaldson, who himself had just bought a few properties in Richmond with the plan of turning one of them into a bookshop, they were on their way to Book Town stardom. Between the three of them, they at least had three guaranteed bookshops for the small town as a seed for the Book Town. The rest, as they say, is history. But all history has its own ups and downs, including jealousy feuds with people who wanted to elbow David out once the concept caught on. These are not exaggerated fears by David, because, when in later years he managed to pull off the concept of the Olive Schreiner Book Festival in Cradock, he was eventually elbowed out, something he bitterly laments also in this book.

Outside the book world, David has his own personal and family regrets – like how he can’t find the grave of a family gardener, Henry Mkhize, who became part of the family after working for them for decades. As such, he’s unable to erect a stone memorial for it. Sars, over the years, has become the bane of his wife Sheritha’s optometrist business. The municipality of Howick, the town he calls home with something like cultic nostalgia, has disappointed him due to the unethical behaviour of its officials, who deliberately hike people’s electricity bills for corrupt gain. They all get well-deserved tongue lashes from David. The major publishers are also not spared that tongue lashing for their unfair preference of big book festivals, like Woordfees, Franschhoek and Open Book, over smaller ones. He takes us through the shaking of our post-’94 democratic world we saw during the brief weeks of the July looting in KZN and Gauteng. He cautions against the taking of our democratic miracle for granted and not learning from the challenges of our most-unequal-in-the-world socioeconomic status quo. This is not a book of complaints, but rather an honest account of his journey with hope and disappointment scribed in large letters.

David waxes lyrical when it comes to his love for old church buildings. This was one of my favourite sections of the book. He hopes this love will be inherited by his only daughter, Kiara, who is currently studying photography. The book is generous in sharing the pics, and as such, its feel on your hand is almost like a coffee table book. If you’re a canine lover, you’ll also find much to love about the book. Above all, this is a book of wanderers and wonders, of those whose hearts are free and vast as the Karoo lands. David quotes writer Etienne van Heerden’s description of the Karoo as “the landscape of the mind”. When you discover the literal wealth associated with the dry but rich medicinal lands of the Karoo – I, too, was born into its peripheries (Queenstown/Komani) – you can understand why we’re BookBedonnerd. If it doesn’t also make you book-crazy, nothing ever will. Perhaps you’ll at least understand why the Karoo seems to be the midwife of South Africa’s literary wealth.

David, who is currently in his 53rd year, says he has always had premonitions from his prophetic soul that he will die at 55 years old. Perish the thought – especially since last year, when with his literary partner, David Atwell, he “launched a rocket” with the highly successful Books on the Bay of Simon’s Town. We know that the stubborn gene – the hardegat gene, which he says he inherited from his mother – will carry him through beyond his 55th year. Long and happy may his remaining years be.

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