Jerry Seinfeld said: “A bookstore is one of the only pieces of evidence we have that people are still thinking.” Books play the vital role in the character building of an individual and nation. Books expand the horizon of thoughts of its reader. Books tend to change the thought process and perspectives of people about the world. The reader becomes the individual who thinks.
According to the World Cities Culture Report 2015, with 1,100 public libraries, Paris has the highest number of public libraries in any city across the globe. Edinburgh, as mall city with less than half a million population, has 298 public libraries. But in Lahore, known as the cultural capital of Pakistan, there are only six public libraries.
However, it is a sad reflection that amongst other positive social values the culture of reading has also persistently been declining across the country. As a result, we are growing more intolerant and biased in our social behaviours which is also indicative of our intellectual decay.
Pakistani classrooms usually do not encourage questioning amongst students, but can we really blame the classroom for a trait we are socialized into from the beginning? Thus, when I became a teacher, I made sure to always encourage questioning by responding in a positive manner, turning whatever was being formally discussed into a casual conversation.
Books were not only part of every household but they were discussed in social gatherings too. Lamentably, the circle of book buyers is now reduced to a limited one, as books are not something fascinating for the people anymore. Nowadays people prefer roaming through shopping malls rather than visiting bookshops.
Austin Phelps once said: “Wear the old coat and read the new book.” But in our part of the world people wear the newest (dearest) of coats and even don’t read the oldest (cheapest) of books. They have become more exhibitionists in their attires and costumes, and intellectual pursuit has almost tuned out of their life.
Recently, however, I was asked a question that left me astonished. An undergraduate student in one of my classes, a rather intelligent kid, asked me why reading books was so important. In his words:
“We live in a visual world; then why do you keep emphasizing reading lengthy pieces of texts when we can learn the same information by watching videos and tutorials on YouTube?”
I cannot deny I was astounded. I had imagined debating over religion, politics, and social norms – all issues on which two diverging opinions can exist, and in fact must exist in a healthy society. But to debate over why human beings need to read was like defending the obvious, or asking why we should breathe. Do we really have a choice if we want to grow?
Nonetheless, as a teacher, one cannot be judgmental and pompous. So, I tried to tell him that in order to write well, one must read more and more. Since my course did have a bunch of writing assignments, he nodded and was somewhat convinced, although not entirely. Other teachers often gave video-making assignments, a large chunk of which tested learnt technological skills as opposed to writing skills or the language used.
Even though I was somewhat able to assuage the student, I myself remained restless that night. How exactly were students being trained in schools and outside? They didn’t just shy away from reading because of sheer laziness, but in fact considered it to be useless and didn’t think it was adding anything to their learning process. It kept me up at night, thinking what had become of us as a society.
I didn’t have to think for too long though. With mainstream news channels routinely using Bollywood song lyrics in their headlines, it wasn’t surprising that young, aspiring media students would be asking their teachers to emphasise “skills that the industry needs”, rather than assign “useless” writing assignments and reading texts by foreign authors.
With close ties between reading habit and virtues like creativity, innovation and social responsibility, in the absence of the former the rampant moral degeneration of society and poor performance in research and development are natural outcomes. Global Innovation Index 2016 has reported Pakistan at 119th position among 128 surveyed nations.
Books transfer collective human wisdom and knowledge to posterity. When a society stops reading then it learns only through bitter experiences. We seem to have opted the bitter path.
So, whenever I hear people saying they stopped watching Pakistani news channels, I wonder whether the cause of that is their subpar graphics and technical sophistication or their lack of quality content.
A week later, something ironic happened. I headed to the National Library of Pakistan to find a number of interesting books that I could use for my course outline. The receptionist told me they did not issue books there, and that people could only come in and read books on the premises.
Not just this, even if you wanted to consult a book lying inside the premises, you needed exclusive membership to the library; the requirement of which was a form, two photographs, your national identification card (NIC) and an attested copy of your last degree. I couldn’t control my laughter.
I thought he was joking. Was the administration of the library implying that someone who could not get a ‘degree’ (let alone go through the horrific, painstaking experience of getting it attested by the Higher Education Commission) did not deserve or need to read anyway? And even if you were privileged enough to have a degree, you still are an ordinary mortal and thus you dare not escape useless bureaucracy.
This took me back to my time in Vancouver as a student. When I walked into the Vancouver Public Library, all I needed was one piece of identification, even as a foreigner, and I could utilise the library’s resources. I also saw something I will never forget: a bunch of homeless people browsing newspapers and using the computers.
With decreasing attention spans and clickbait journalism, the culture of reading books is dying a painful death worldwide. But what is more unfortunate is that in a country such as Pakistan, where the literacy rate is already staggeringly low, even many of the educated and privileged ones don’t feel the need to read.
This makes the job of a teacher increasingly difficult; almost that of a bibliotherapist. Reading is a pleasure that every literate person must have access to. We can all recall a book that changed our life or our perspective on something very integral. A book does not even need to be a masterpiece to do that. It can in fact be something very ordinary; something the press does not create a buzz about.
This, in itself, is the beauty of reading a text: it impacts every reader differently. To be devoid of the basic exercise of reading when one is able to read is pitiful to say the least.
Barring a few large public libraries, the rest are under administrative control of municipal bodies. The plight of municipal public libraries is terrible. There are neither qualified librarians nor budgetary allocations to buy books or maintain the infrastructure.
Apart from a few newspaper readers, hardly anyone visits these libraries in search of books. Everywhere in the developed world libraries provide people with a social space for learning, entertainment and social interaction. In the absence of such ‘social spaces’, an increase in intolerant, anti-social and extremist behaviour in society is a plausible result.
The root of the problem turning ours into a non-reading society lies in our flawed education system. The fallacious curriculum doesn’t offer any room for general reading and creative writing.
Teachers just following the syllabus are rarely found motivating students towards general reading to acquire in-depth knowledge. As a result, most of the students are turned exam-oriented. They never read to develop ideas and expand the horizons of their vision but just to get through their papers.
Issues in the Book Reading
Fallacious education system: The basic problem lies in our flawed education system. Our education system focuses on the cramming system rather than creative and imaginative skills of students. Teachers barely focus to build the reading habit in the students. The approach of an education system is result and syllabus oriented.
The popularity of digital devices and internet: Devices like smartphones, tablets and laptops are most often blamed for the decline of book reading. People especially youth has become addicted to these devices.
Parenting: Parents are the most basic institution of learning for kids. In the past, parents used to inculcate the love of books in their kids. Books were discussed in their daily conversations but unfortunately, the number of such parents has declined now. Parents neither read nor tell their kids to read books.
A small number of libraries: another cause of this trend is the small number of libraries. Developed countries are known for their huge number of libraries but in Pakistan, this number does not go beyond hundreds. In the country of twenty million people, a small number of libraries shows the pathetic situation of book reading.
There are many factors which have contributed to this sorry state of affairs. Some people tend to blame the internet, social media, professional engagements or high prices of books for their distance from books. But, despite widespread use of internet and busy post-industrial socio-economic life, book sales in the developed societies have not declined. Rather, technology has further promoted reading culture by providing digital pocket-size libraries like Kindle and e-books.
Revival of the culture
To revive the diminishing reading culture what we immediately need is to inculcate the love for books in our children to lay the foundation of a book-reading society. Besides, an extended network of public libraries and readers clubs can rejuvenate this habit.
Likewise, instituting book fairs, reading festivals and literary galas on a regular basis would yield us the desired result.
Moreover, a media campaign can also play a vital role in rescuing this tattering culture. Keeping in view the effectiveness of its message, it can safely be assumed that the electronic media can serve as a catalyst. Ironically, it broadcasts a wide range of programmes for a diverse nature of viewers, ranging from fashion-conscious people to food lovers but lamentably offers nothing to satisfy the appetite of bibliophiles.
There shouldn’t be two opinions that books discussed and recommended by writers and intellectuals on TV can relatively get a wider range of readership as compared to those reviewed or discussed in the print media as the former has a huge number of viewers in comparison with the few readers of the latter.
Libraries can be developed as integrated facilities serving as community centres. Once people come near books, they will ultimately start reading. An important contribution which governments can make is to allow duty-free import of foreign books and offer some tax incentives for booksellers. Provincial education departments can incorporate annual reading competitions in their official event calendars. Provincial governments can support and assist local governments in improving their library management capacity.
The recent rise of literary festivals on a regular basis is a silver lining. Federal and provincial governments should patronise these festivals. These events can help in revival of book culture. For a nation whose entire generation has grown up amidst terror attacks and suicide blasts, such literature festivals can provide great opportunity to draw the attention of public towards books.
Perhaps encouraging reading is now the job of the entire society – of parents, the media and most importantly, educated adults who must emphasize to adolescents that the value of an education, particularly a college education, lies in how it transforms an individual and should not be measured by the kind of job or ‘skill set’ acquired.