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Hungry for books

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Not long ago, buying a good book in Zimbabwe was almost impossible. The government booksellers Kingstons sold flags and pens instead, its sparsely stocked shelves mirroring adjacent near-empty supermarkets. Our two favorite secondhand bookstores in Harare closed down, forced out of business by hyperinflation that topped 231 million percent.

Sometimes I felt I was starving for a nice novel. I wasn't the only one. Friends from the ethnic Shona majority begged to borrow magazines or novels sent to me by family members overseas. "Haven't you got anything for me to read?" they'd say. "Give us this day our daily bread" took on a whole new meaning: I realized that Zimbabweans around me didn't just want food, they also craved new texts to read, digest, and discuss.

State-controlled newspapers were not satisfying enough. The local library offered little help. It was "seasonal," I was informed: Because of a leaky tin roof, the library closed during the rainy months. Unfortunately, the authorities had discovered the leaks too late, meaning that many of the books were destroyed.

A habitual flick-reader, I have learned the pleasures of rereading, savoring over and over again sentences I might once have skimmed. I found echoes of Zimbabwe's shortages in British novelist Helen Dunmore's "The Siege," an imaginative reconstruction of the blockade of Leningrad in 1941. I recognized protagonist Anna's joy when she unexpectedly found an onion for her starving family: While we were never that hungry, I, too, had felt a sudden surge of elation when fruit disappeared from the shops but a neighbor invited us to pick mulberries from her tree.

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