“What a delightful world is this world of books — if you bring to this not the obligation of the students, or look upon it as an opium for idleness, but enter it rather with the enthusiasm of the adventurer.” — David Grayson
SOME years ago, the chief guest at a book launch ceremony asked a pertinent question: why do people write books when very few people read them? What is it that motivates people to write books and continue to do so when they get nothing out of it? It is both poor economic sense and a sad reflection on a society, which can survive without reading.
The launch I am referring to was held almost half a century ago. The situation is worse now when the written word is under the threat of electronic media and advanced technology.
The radio and the television, dish and cable, flat screen and three-dimensional viewing, and surround sound create an amazing effect. These entertain and inform one through hundreds of worldwide channels without ever going to the bookshelf or library to savour the creative genius of writers around the world.
Why are we losing the reading habit?
But the programmes are poor linguistically, artistically and in the quality of their content. The same applies to films, perhaps more emphatically because of box-office compulsions. Good films are few and bad ones are legion.
Yet, contrary to the common perception, it is not the influence of the electronic media that is responsible for weaning children and youth away from the treasures contained in books in Pakistan. If that was so, books would not have sold in millions in the US, Europe, Russia, Japan, and even closer to home in Iran in all major languages of the world.
The libraries there are bursting at the seams with books and periodicals even as their electronic media is more vibrant, volatile and violent that could potentially distract young minds from the thrill of reading. To understand and address this problem it is important to ask questions to know where we have gone wrong. The answers may embarrass us.
The appalling drop in reading habits and loss of interest in books and magazines can be traced to the change in our values and educational standards, though some isolated efforts are under way to stem the rot. Parents, teachers and even pupils are hardly interested in acquiring broad-based knowledge but study only to score high marks. A former head of the Cambridge Syndicate in Pakistan, Fred Burke described this phenomenon as ‘chasing shadows’.
The best-seller list of our students does not include the scriptures of Sophocles or Kalidas, Shakespeare or Ghalib nor the more contemporary writers like Shaw, Iqbal, Faiz, O’Henry, Maupassant and Mark Twain. These are the solved papers of earlier examinations, keys to textbooks.
Funnily enough, teachers and examiners accept the responses that a youngster picks up from poorly written guides and keys that are memorised.
How can students be expected to answer questions intelligently when they have not been exposed to wide reading and independent research? In fact, examiners deduct marks on answers that are not reproduced verbatim from the textbook. It was hardly surprising to learn from a former head of a public school in Karachi that he does not read books or newspapers. How can he or ‘teachers’ like him guide their pupils on sensible reading materials?
It is necessary to create in our teachers the importance and power of books that will encourage an appreciation for the written word, expressed with integrity and grace.
At the same time to inculcate a distaste and rejection of written work that is stilted, shoddy and deceptive. Most teachers fail to do this and, in fact, do not even realise that it is their duty to do so. What is the way out of this impasse?
It is important to introduce the young to literary classics and expose them to the magical world of books. Any book. A child may be interested in history and biographies, and not economics and politics. His interest may not be in scientific adventures, but in plays and poetry, or vice versa. Even sports and cinema.
He should be encouraged to read the books, the stories and poems he fancies and guided in his chosen readings by the parent and the teacher. Some parents, albeit a small number, enjoy reading aloud to or with the little ones, books that open a window to an exciting and wonderful world of knowledge and adventure. Here on the child will develop the love for books.
The sixth version of the Karachi Literature Festival will see writers and intellectuals for readings and recitals, book unveiling and vibrant discussions on a variety of subjects in several languages, to uphold the integrity of the written word and its use to improve the quality of life.
The writer is a freelance contributor.
Published in Dawn, February 5th, 2015