Book Review

What they’re reading

PIC

Victor Mwongera (left) and Anand Mohan. PHOTOS | POOL

Victor Mwongera

Head of Department of Mechanical Engineering, Kenyatta University and Chairman,Youth Enterprise Development Fund

How many books do you read a year?

About 12 books; I find that one book a month is a realistic goal, especially when balancing family life and work.

The first quarter of the year is almost over, have you achieved your reading goals?

I am currently reading my second book: ‘The History of the World’ by Frank Welsh. Before that, I completed Mary Trump’s book ‘Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.’ By Christmas time, I am sure I shall be on track.

You got your PhD before you reached 30, did this decision pay off?

My mentor, an engineering professor from the University of Nairobi once told me that while pursuing his doctorate, he had to devote a significant amount of time to his studies at the expense of his new family. I learned from this and decided to take a straight shot from nursery to PhD. It wasn’t easy especially as my peers got their first jobs, bought their first cars and homes, while I was studying. However, I made the right choice. I am not a multi-tasker, had I not done it before a job and a family I would have never done it.

You worked at Rolls Royce. Why did you quit?

It was an exciting opportunity. But I always felt that I was an alien in a foreign country. And it was not from lack of trying; for 10 years, my social circle, housemates and some of my closest friends were from the UK.

But since coming back, I have found that I utilise my skills, knowledge and experience more in Kenya than I did in the UK. When working for established aerospace engineering companies, there are set procedures and standards. It does not leave you room for creative design or problem-solving. But in Kenya, the industry is new and forming. I solve problems and innovate in a way that I would never be able to do at Rolls Royce.

Which author or book speaks the most about your personality?

I enjoy the works of Audrey Niffenegger. I love how she creates characters that struggle with day-to-day problems, even in the fictional world. In ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’, she describes the main protagonist, Henry, from when he is young and in a dysfunctional relationship and follows him to when he dies in middle age. I relate with how, despite having the ability to travel in time, he is just trying to live his life. He struggles with his parents, fights with his wife, and even resorts to crime when he is desperate. Very few authors can properly capture human nature as they describe the heroes of the story.

Is there a book character that you find hard to forget?

I enjoyed the depiction of Lincoln in the book ‘Team of Rivals.’ A lot of people may have enjoyed the movie adaptation released in 2012. But the movie gives a small scene of a masterly written book.

The author, Doris Kearns, sets to describe how Lincoln ran in the election as an underdog, how after winning a very contentious election picked his greatest opponents to be in his cabinet, how he took over a country that was already fractured and with one move, set America into a four-year war that saw hundreds of thousands dead, millions upon millions of dollars burned and thousands of families torn apart all because he believed a country divided within itself cannot stand. He is now remembered as a revolutionary thinker and champion of civil liberties but at the time, he was considered an insane liberal and a terrible leader. The book paints a picture that no movie could compare to and is a must-read.

What do you make of the Kenyan reading culture?

I think our reading culture has reduced. Today, I can access a lot of content on my phone; most of which is designed for instant gratification. Tweets, short messages, 6-second Tik Tok videos are slowly eroding our concentration. And I am guilty of this as well. Ten years ago, when I first got my Kindle, I used to read book after book. I read books to relax, to fall asleep, to find out more about a character and even re-read books when bored. Now, the Amazon app is very rarely used. I will more likely be on WhatsApp or watch a YouTube channel before I decide to read the book I bought six months ago. Once the self-discipline is gone, it is very hard to get it back.

What was your first interaction with a book?

My first recollection of reading was Bongoman; I remember laughing at his antics, at the home dynamics of mama boi and boi. I also remember reading ‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell when I was about eight years. But I truly fell in love with reading when someone lent me a copy of ‘Hardy Boys.’ I felt as if I had been transported into this world where two teenagers were able to foil plots of murder, espionage and corruption. I know some avid readers would cringe at this but reading is like music. Sometimes we just like what we like.

Do you have a philosophy on books?

I think the culture of book reading has an air of unrealistic expectation to it. Most avid book readers will make you feel as if you have missed the boat if you don’t read at least one book a month. Or if you have not read Leo Tolsto’s ‘War and Peace’. Yet the truth is, most people’s lives are too busy or too chaotic to read volumes upon volumes a day. Books should genuinely be a source of enjoyment. If you enjoyed Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (like I did) then it does not matter that J.K Rowling initially wrote it as a children’s book. It was magical to you, and the good news is that there are six more to follow. You don’t have to have read all of Malcolm Gladwell’s novels before you can proclaim to be a book reader.

How do books make you emotionally intelligent?

Reading takes you into different worlds, into the minds of a myriad of characters, and makes you wonder how you would react in that situation. One of my favourite books, ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’ by Susanna Clarke , tells the tale of two magicians in 1800 England, who are fighting for superiority in their profession in a time when magic is considered a novelty.

The book, at face value, sounds ridiculous, the setting completely different to modern Kenya and the content not relatable. Yet whenever I read it, I find myself sympathising with first the protagonist, then the antagonist. It helped me realise that, even in those who seem to be completely not on your side, there may be value in empathising where they are coming from.

Any books you can recommend to our readers?

‘Shogun’ by James Clavell. It is a well-written and entertaining book. It follows an English sailor who was stranded in Japan in the Edo period. Another one is 'A Short History of Nearly Everything’ by Bill Bryson. He describes the history of the universe in a narrative manner that captivates you; from the big bang to the present.

*****

Anand Mohan

Digital Managing Director, Techno Brain Group

Have you achieved your reading goals set so far?

I usually target to read one book in two to three weeks. One of the advantages of Covid-19 is staying home for the most part and it has helped achieve my reading goals for last quarter.

How did the pandemic alter your reading habits?

First, I can read a lot more on weekends. In addition to reading books, now I read many online articles. The thing about online is you start reading something and can continue endlessly till you get tired.

Which book(s) are you currently obsessed with?

‘The Leadership Challenge’ by Barry Posner and James Kouzes, ‘The Culture Code’ by Daniel Coyle, and ‘A Promised Land’ by Barack Obama.

When was your first interaction with a book?

I won a book as a prize in school and didn’t read it for a long time. Once I read the book, I wanted to read the rest of the books in the series. On a lighter note, I thought that was a good marketing strategy.

Is there a book that speaks to your personality, either who you are as a person or aspire to be?

Recently I read ‘Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage’ by Alfred Lansing. It’s about uncertainties, difficulties and survival against all odds. I believe that’s my personality; enduring obstacles. However, I would like to learn to be not so much disappointed with failures.

Do you have a philosophy on books?

Any book is worth reading as it opens a different world for you. I mostly read non-fiction and my favourites are autobiographies as they are easy to understand, appreciate, and learn key takeaways faster.

How do you, through your role, encourage young readers to read more? In what ways can the younger ones be encouraged to explore their intellectual capabilities in this digital era?

It has become relatively easy to access resources digitally as compared to physical copies. Digital is also encouraging the younger generation to attempt reading and writing. A good example is wattpad.com where I see many young Kenyans are reading and writing books. I usually share all the resources that I have found or have access to with my network. I am also part of goodreads.com where you advise and recommend titles with various groups.

Which one book can you recommend as a must-read in someone’s lifetime?

‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ by Dale Carnegie. There are many lessons one can learn from this classic and they will help in your personal and professional lives.