IN a country where a commonly voiced lament is that we are not a society of book readers, any effort to get people interested in literary pursuits is a feat in itself.
From time to time, the National Book Foundation (NBF) has made efforts to promote the reading habit. Its latest move — previously it had appointed ‘book ambassadors’ and honoured authors — has been to institute the Bibliophile of the Year award. For 2011, Ghazi Salahuddin, a senior and competent journalist and for many years my colleague at Dawn, has been named the winner.
Although Ghazi is modest about his achievement — he says there are many people he knows who read more than he does — he admits that he has a passion for promoting books. I can testify to Ghazi’s prolific reading. There were many books I read after he had recommended them.
It is the apathy to books to which is attributed the “literary, educational, intellectual and cultural degradation” in our society (to quote Ghazi). In this intellectual desert that surrounds us it is hardly any comfort to learn that more titles are being published today than before.
To check the claims made by booksellers who are wary about releasing sales figures — I often wonder why — I decided to contact the National Library of Pakistan (NLP), Islamabad, the repository under law of every book published in the country. It is also the ISBN (International Standard Book Number) agency for Pakistan. This number which is country-specific gives a book its own identity and creates a system to keep a count of titles published. Unfortunately the ISBN doesn’t — it is neither possible — shed light on the number of copies printed and the number read.
This investigation unearthed a pleasant surprise. The website of the NLP itself is professionally done — comprehensive, systematically arranged, pleasing in layout and user friendly, though I encountered some technological glitches. Better still, when I called up the telephone number given, I actually got to speak to Mr Irshad Sherwani, editor of the Pakistan National Bibliography, who said he had all the information I needed and more. He had been waiting all these years for someone to ask for it.
Very promptly he emailed me the data he and his staff must have so assiduously collected and arranged. According to this the number of titles published in Pakistan jumped from 691 in 1972 to 2,482 in 2011. It is a four-fold increase when the literacy rate has gone up from 21 per cent in 1972 to the 57 per cent claimed today.
Ghazi says he does not quarrel with the assertion that more books are being published and read today, but this increase does not conform to the steady increase in population, literacy and number of graduates. There I agree with him absolutely.
In fact, in a society rising from such low levels of literacy as Pakistan’s, this increase should have been phenomenal. The print runs are so measly — at the most 1,100 and even as low as 500 in some cases — that the increase in the number of titles cannot be used as a criterion to measure the reading habits of people.
The impact reading makes depends on what is being published. Many books lack quality. A genre to flood the market is religion. It is a variety of populist religion that is produced to cater to the public’s sentiments of religiosity. Few, if any, are the products of solid research. Many do more damage than good to society. In 2011, 486 (20 per cent) of the 2,482 titles published were on religion.
The moot question is why do we shirk reading? Ghazi lays the blame on our education system and the brutalisation of our society by intolerance and religious extremism. He also feels that the absence of any national discourse on important issues acts as a disincentive to explore society through literature.
Taking the chicken or egg first argument, one can say that the level of discourse and intellectual activities in a society are determined by education and reading habits. As Sister Mary Emily, my college principal, used to say, the discourse of intellectual and well-read people centres round ideas and philosophies. Those with a low level of education or with no education at all talk about people and their gossip — a sad reflection on our television talk shows!
I would place some blame on the parents — especially the educated ones — for not creating an interest in reading in their children. They have a big role to play in the relationship children have with books. This process should start from early childhood. Thereafter it can safely be said, once a reader, always a reader. Bedtime storytelling is the best way of bonding children with parents and grandparents as well as books.
Though not everyone goes on to read serious literature, I would not quarrel with Ghazi that the beginning can be made with digests, fairytales, etc as long as young readers learn to take pleasure in reading. Later, many of them will graduate to higher taste.
What we do need is a very conscious and concerted effort to launch a book-reading campaign. The NBF should be at the forefront of this effort. Having taken this initiative and having made an apt choice of a bibliophile to promote books, it should now focus on schoolchildren. They should be provided incentives to become candidates for the junior bibliophile of the year award.