Building Reading Culture in Kazakhstan One Book Club at a Time

ASTANA – Amid modern Kazakhstan’s ubiquitous gadgets and the increasingly slivered style of communication everywhere, some of the country’s urban residents are taking the time to step out of the information highway for a while and read, at length, together.

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Members of Astana’s Poetry Club

“The reason I decided to found a reading club is very simple,” said Jeanne Kimanoff, who founded Astana’s Reading Together club in 2011, on May 14. “I wanted to read more myself. At that time, I found myself not reading any sound literature for two to three years. I wanted to change the situation and thus was looking for fellow readers.”

The reading and writing clubs popping up have different areas of focus. The Enactus Reading Club in Almaty, founded two years ago as an offshoot of the Enactus Club, (“A community of student, academic and business leaders committed to using … entrepreneurial action to transform lives and shape a better, more sustainable world.”) concentrates on skills-based books, founder Azamat Utenov told The Astana Times on April 30. They started with topics like leadership, presentation and storytelling, marketing, the science of happiness and other self-improvement ideas.

“[These] topics are not covered in universities, they are not in the programme,” he said, explaining why the group was founded. The ideas may be covered in a couple of schools as part of MBA programmes, but not at the bachelor level, he said. “So, there is a gap: students get only academic background in university halls, but not the other materials from business books that they could apply to their life and career. I want to change this, to decrease this gap by cultivating reading [business and other] books.”

The Reading Together club in Astana also began as a more skills-oriented organisation, Kimanoff said. “For the first four months we were reading motivational books: ‘Think and Grow Rich’ by Napoleon Hill, ‘Never Eat Alone’ by Keith Ferazzi. … In February 2012 we changed the format of the club meetings and suggested other kinds of books to read together (classic, biography, history and others).”

Astana’s weekly poetry club, on the other hand, is purely about art and expression. Founded 11 years ago, the club meets on Saturdays to discuss literature and workshop the members’ poems. The group publishes its own literary magazine and says there are plenty of options for print and online publishing in Kazakhstan. But finding readers of poetry? That’s another matter, laughed poet and group member Boris Ipatov, 24, in an interview on April 29. “Maybe some people are interested in reading such things, but I wouldn’t say that there are many. … Some of them are just our friends, some of them are fond of poetry and are interested in such literature. … But we can’t say that there are a lot of people in Kazakhstan who are fond of poetry.”

“When we write, we want people to read us, but we don’t expect that it will be really [a lot of] people. So when people tell us or write us that they have read [our work] it is always unexpected … and we feel really cool,” said Narkes Orazbayeva, 26, another member of the group.

They meet because poetry is important to them, Orazbayeva said. The primary purpose is their own growth and self-expression. “But then, we do some evenings, we try to do some projects … with these events, we want to say that poetry is important itself, because in our opinion, in literature in general and in poetry, there are all the experiences of people, relationships of people, and so on.” Accessing other peoples’ experiences through literature is important for everyone, she said – it helps readers avoid mistakes.

They’re not the only people in Astana interested in poetry – there are seven other poetry clubs, the members said, though many focus on Kazakh language poetry. “It’s kind of surprising,” Ipatov said. “Before, I didn’t know that there were so many poetry and literature clubs in Astana. I just thought it was, like, a dead place for poets, for literature and writers. It’s kind of surprising that, yeah, there are a lot of such places and clubs and small societies.”

The Reading Together club has grown over four years, starting from four people at their first meeting to now including more than 700 on the group’s Facebook page. About 30 attend their monthly meetings regularly, Kimanoff said; 15-25 come to Enactus’s meetings, according to Utenov. But that hasn’t assuaged Kimanoff’s worries about the state of literature in the region.

“In my opinion, literature is one of the indicators of the cultural development of a society. Unfortunately, nowadays, very few people in Kazakhstan and in the rest of the Commonwealth of Independent States read and talk about books. Even fewer people are interested in writing and publishing books,” she lamented. (The most recent information UNESCO has for books published in Kazakhstan is from 1996, when the country published 1,226 new titles. Kazakhstan’s National State Book Chamber says 5,033 new titles were published in 2013, the most recent year for which data was available.)

Neither Utenov nor Kimanoff think literature and reading are supported enough in Kazakhstan. And neither intends to wait for someone else to turn that around. In a country that is still awakening to the power of civil society, these and other reading clubs are a small part of a larger process of bringing art and culture into individual hands.

“Look at www.ibookyou.kz – it is a group of enthusiasts (not the government) who created this website, with blogs, and last year they started organising book exchange parties in cafes,” Utenov offers. “I went to Almaty and there were many people at 10 a.m. on Sunday there to exchange books with each other. So, in my opinion we shouldn’t expect and wait for government to support the culture of reading books. Any person who is concerned about it can make a contribution by himself – by first of all reading a book, or simply making a gift of a book to friends, parents, colleagues or anyone.”

And rather than losing literacy to technology, Utenov points out, Kazakh readers’ gadgets are bringing them stories they might not have encountered before. “Thanks to smartphones, people read more on their gadgets. Many people used to read only when they went to beach, or laid on the sofa, or when they bought a book. But now you can just click and download any book or audiobook, so you can listen in traffic,” he said.

Low-cost ebooks are also a digital boon, he said. “I meet students very often – they can’t afford to buy a book they would like for 2,000–3,000 tenge (US$10.76–US$16.14), but they can find it online for free, or at least cheaper.”

“I would really want to support the reading culture of Kazakhstan’s citizens,” Kimanoff said. “I hope that the Astana reading club motivates its members to read and to read more. … The importance of literature is invaluable. A book can be your friend, your teacher, your coach, your partner. Reading develops your imagination and creativity. Classic literature supports your cultural development. Historical books make you an educated person. Biographies motivate and inspire you. Fantasy turns on your creativity. There are so many ways literature can enhance your life.”

 

 

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