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The reading habit

June 24, 2013

IN countries where education is inaccessible to many and schooling is seen as a primary factor in upward social mobility, such as Pakistan or India, teachers and parents often complain that students waste too much time reading stories, and do not study enough.

Listening to this grouse during a parent-teacher interaction, one teacher I am greatly indebted to leaned down towards my crestfallen friend and told him to study hard, because obviously there were things to learn and exams to excel at and so on. Straightening up, though, he told the parent: let him read; textbooks give him information, stories teach him about life.

As an intern at a newspaper, I was dredging my way in a slow period through some weighty tome or other; less, I imagine, out of interest and probably more to impress someone if I possibly could.

A senior journalist, who had a tremendous amount to teach to anyone who was willing, walked into the room and noticed. To my consternation, he laughed, and said, “that’s all very well, but if you’re here to learn how to write well, you’d be better off with some fiction”.

In order to write well, especially for a newspaper, having information was essential, he explained. “But if you have only that you’ll make a good reporter, perhaps, but not necessarily a good writer. Writing is an art,” he said. “Articles that need colour — which is pretty much everything which isn’t straight court reporting — such as sports coverage, you need the richness and linguistic flexibility that only fiction-reading can provide.”

Fact or fiction, there is no argument that reading is essential to a person’s exposure and growth. But in Pakistan, over the years, opportunities to read — particularly public-lending libraries — have been disappearing.

There seems to be a curious kind of disconnect settling in: on the one hand, there are more high-profile book fairs and literary events than there used to be, attracting audiences and customers from all levels of society. But the book itself is becoming inaccessible to large swathes of middle- to low- income children.

Where once markets used to sport sidewalk book vendors and there were any number of old bookshops, now, finding a second-hand book — especially in affluent areas — is something of a challenge.

This can partly be explained by the digital age of Kindles, etc. But that argument, if it applies to Pakistan at all, applies to only a fraction of the population.

This can also partly be explained through a lack of demand given the abysmal rates of literacy and education in the country — and that again leads to the argument that more books should be available, to buy and to borrow, so that the habit and love of reading is instilled in the young.

In villages in the UK, a lovely method of book-swaps has taken hold. The venue is the red telephone kiosk, mainly redundant now because of mobile phones. People started putting old books in them for others to take away, the condition being that you must leave a book to replace the one you’ve taken.

Being the UK, a sort of gentleman’s agreement is in effect, though there are no doubt some thefts too. (I realise, though, that might be a bit too utopian for Pakistan.)

Pakistan needs urgently to resurrect the old libraries and establish new ones. The British Council, for example, used to run a very well-stocked public-lending library in the cities where it has an office; it was downsized drastically when public access was curtailed upwards of a decade ago because of security threats.

There are several libraries in Lahore but in many cases, either access is restricted for the general public (members only, and no further memberships being given out) or little is being done to add new books to the collection.

There are other ways, too, in which reading can be advocated or facilitated. I had a friend who lived in a Rawalpindi mohalla where a lady ran a reading club. The children brought and swapped books, she herself had an extensive collection and people living in the neighbourhood were always contributing.

Eventually, the lady ran out of room and the physical library was housed in several different places, with gardeners busily bicycling between the houses to bring out the required book.

Another friend told me of a modest enterprise a newspaper hawker had initiated in Karachi: he had a lending library mounted on the back of his bicycle.

He only had a couple of dozen books, but they were constantly changing — he’d sell them off once the neighbourhood’s children weren’t interested any longer and buy replacements from the old book market. He did a weekly round, and for a very affordable fee children could borrow them.

The establishment of a library appears, on the surface to be a daunting task. You need the space, and books, and staff and so on. But it needn’t be so.

An admirable initiative in this regard was taken over a couple of decades ago in Lahore — the Alif Laila Book Bus. This is an actual bus parked in an area where children from all income brackets have access (near Main Market), and it’s a library. A few months ago I received an email from them saying that they were initiating a campaign to advocate reading, and one can only wish them well.

All the political parties said in the run-up to the elections that they would make education a priority, and the provincial governments commendably raised the education allocation in their budgets.

This is laudable, but a holistic strategy would include a focus on libraries too. I realise how this may sound anachronistic in a country where schools are bombed; nevertheless what can we do but try?

The writer is a member of staff.