When books are spared

August 30, 2011


WHEN England burnt in the fires lit by rioters and looters earlier this month newspapers in Pakistan gave it wide coverage. Such is the level of interest in the events in the UK which hosts over one million immigrants of Pakistani ancestry.

This paper itself provided its readers sufficient information and comments on the good, the bad and the ugly that came to the fore in London, Birmingham, Liverpool and other British cities. But what I missed in our papers back home was the fate of the British bookshops. Or may be they didn’t make headlines and escaped my notice. My attention was drawn to the bookshops by an opinion piece in the Toronto Star by columnist Heather Mallick, which provided me the trail to articles in the British and American press on an interesting phenomenon. Mallick’s article was pithily headlined, ‘Looters give books a bad review’.

Thebookseller.com, a British website, reported, ‘Bookshops avoid major damage in London rioting’, while the widely read US-based online Huffington Post analysed this event in an article, ‘What the UK riots mean for the bookstores’. Its conclusion as to why the bookstores remained largely unaffected was that what took place was “quite intelligent looting” thus implying that the looters do not read.

It then asked, “Did the bookstores survive because the rioters respect reading — or because they simply don’t care about books? Is this a positive or a negative sign for the future of the industry? Writer Patrick French tweeted his own hopeful theory: “Perhaps last night’s rioters only do their reading on Kindles.”

The conventional wisdom was, as Mallick put it, “the resale value of a book … is derisory compared to jewellery”. Hence the bookshops were safe. In Pakistan many books — especially imported ones — are relatively expensive for middle-class readers lacking purchasing power, yet these items are quite safe when law and order breaks down.

In normal times too sales of books are not high. Print-runs do not even go into four digits generally. A 250-page book can cost as much as Rs500. Of course, a gold earring would cost more. Besides the resale value of books is peanuts. Hence rioters and robbers are not attracted by books. My own experience and of all the people who have become victims of house robberies has been that when robbers ransack a house they invariably leave the books alone. They don’t waste time on them.

As far as rioters go, ours are more arsonists. They just set shops on fire. If there is anything they want, all they have to do is rob which is more civilised than looting. Since there are not too many bookstores around they escape the notice of those out to wreak havoc on public property.

In that context, books appear to be a safe investment in Pakistan. One doesn’t have to spend on guarding them — be it in the form of security guards or bank lockers. But this does not guarantee the future of books. The danger comes from the government. It has never been famous for promoting the publishing industry or encouraging related activities and institutions such as book reading and libraries. If anything, it has been known to ban books whenever it feels threatened by one of them. Remember Ayesha Siddiqa’s Military Inc which exposed the moneymaking enterprises of the armed forces? It wasn’t banned — that strategy has come to be frowned upon — but it was made difficult to obtain. Like hot cakes it always seemed to be sold out. The Oxford University Press termed it its most quick-selling publication.

What is disturbing is that at a time the booksellers tell us that more and more people are turning to books the government is not being very helpful. The international book fair — actually the ratio of national is preponderantly high — that the Pakistan Publishers and Booksellers Association has been organising every year since 2007 has been pulling increasingly larger crowds every year. Held at the Expo Centre, the fair is the scene of hectic activity and becomes a family occasion for the middle classes. It is a pleasure to see so many people, including children, browsing through the books and then walking away with their shopping, impatient to start reading.

The government could help if it didn’t go with full vigour to squeeze the publishing industry to the last drop. No relief has been provided in income tax to publishers while taxes on paper have increased steadily in the last three years leading to a hike in the price of paper by 35 to 40 per cent. If we could somehow popularise book reading, it is quite likely that the level of violence in our society would go down. As Nikesh Shukla writing for the Guardian asks starkly, “Are you more or less likely to riot if you read? What could books offer the looters anyway?”

His answer is spot on. “When the talking starts,” Shukla observes, “all the rhetoric is about community, education, offering the rioters prospects and life expectations and qualifications and journeys towards growing up as well-adjusted members of society. How better to do all these things than with books?”

For Pakistan this process of pacification and teaching human values will have to begin with education. For people can read books only when they are literate. Unfortunately, there are too many in our population who cannot even read. And, of course, those who can read, don’t. That is not everyone.