To read or not

December 21, 2018

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Zubeida Mustafa
Zubeida Mustafa

THE tenth annual What Kids are Reading Report released earlier this year in the UK got educationists worried. After surveying a million primary and secondary schoolchildren, the author of this document concluded that the country faced a persistent problem of getting young teenagers “to read challenging and age-appropriate books”.

It is now suggested that the secondary school pupils should benefit by having 15 to 30 minutes of time for independent reading integrated into the school curriculum.

For long, it has been believed that the axiom “practice makes perfect” could not hold true for anything more than literacy. The more you read the better your language skills become.

Where are Pakistan’s children on the reading scale? In the absence of professional and standardised surveys it is difficult to assess our children’s reading habits. But casual inquiries and random observation show that our children are not too excited by books. When we speak of the reading culture, what is really important is to determine how much and what people are reading in their leisure time for pleasure.

Where are Pakistan’s children on the reading scale?

Reading — actually memorising — textbooks is not what we mean by the book reading habit. That is what is lacking in Pakistan and it shows in the low intellectual calibre of our people and the poverty of our intelligentsia.

The poor literacy skills of our students also betray our negligence of the book culture. The last Annual Status of Education Report of 2016 revealed that only 52 per cent of children in Grade 5 could read a story of Grade 2 level in a local language. Tests for English reading skills for students of Grade 5 showed worse results. Only 46pc could read sentences in English designed for Grade 2.

Some critics feel that the reading habit cannot grow when good books are not being published. But even in this bleak scenario, once in a while one comes across a book for children that cheers the heart.

One example is the recently released bilingual book (in Urdu and English) titled Jingles in the Jungle. Written by Rumana Husain, the award-winning author of 60 books for children, Jingles is a lively account of animals and how they sing in their own ‘language’ and dance in harmony to inspire humans to create soul-soothing music. Elegantly illustrated — Rumana is a graphic designer too — this 20-page book would attract any young reader who gets to see it.

But just as one swallow does not a summer make, a single well-produced book does not create a book culture. So one may well ask, why can’t we have more such books and of course more advanced ones for older children? Moreover, Jingles costs a hefty Rs500. How many can buy books at this rate on a regular basis?

According to Sana Shahid, a manager at Paramount Books, the price of books is on the rise and selling books, whether for adults or children, is a mighty challenge. She adds that children are not reading many books.

In a class of 20, only five would be buying books on a regular basis to read and only one would go for a book in Urdu. Since the government has done little to lower the cost of paper and printing material, books are quite inaccessible.

It is a vicious cycle in which the publishing industry is trapped. Since there are not enough readers, the economy of scale does not work to force down the price of books. As books are costly, not many people want to buy them.

Of course, this vicious cycle can be broken by the intervention of the education authorities and the schools. The answer lies in creating a network of libraries all over the country. It must be made mandatory for every educational institution to have a library and hire a qualified librarian to manage it. A dedicated librarian can inspire every student to read books. But most schools don’t have a library. The few which have one don’t always employ a librarian and the books lie gathering dust on the shelves.

But the fact is that even the best of librarians cannot make a child read a book that she doesn’t enjoy. How does one ensure the readability of books for children? By getting writers and illustrators of high quality.

With such low print runs, no publisher can pay professional writers who should receive enough in monetary terms to subsist on it. Even most popular writers have had to work in other professions to earn their living. In Pakistan, one cannot be a full-time author and lead a decent life.

So the cycle goes on. This much is clear: our nation is being destroyed because people shun books. As parents and teachers do not read books they cannot make their children/students read either.

Pity the nation that does not read.

www.zubeidamustafa.com

Published in Dawn, December 21st, 2018