By Zubeida Mustafa
FEW people now read for pleasure. Therefore, to meet a person who loves to read books can be a fascinating experience. And if there are people who read for pleasure and then drive down miles every Friday evening without fail to participate in discussions on books, then it is time to learn more about them.
I have had the privilege of meeting such bibliophiles — about 20 or 25 of them — who describe themselves as members of the Readers Club. On Jan 10, the club will complete 13 years of its low-profile existence. Two years ago it was registered as a trust to ensure its permanence.
The brainchild of Abbas Husain, the well-known director of the Teachers Development Centre who claims to have reached out to 40,000 teachers in 20 years, and Azmat Khan, a management trainer professional, the Readers’ Club has held over 500 meetings so far.
It doesn’t assemble in Ramazan and on public holidays that fall on a Friday. The membership comprises a diverse class of people — ranging from retired army officers, doctors, teachers, businessmen to an ex-royalty from a former estate of pre-Partition India, There are two features they all share, age — 50-plus — and a deep love of books..
With no formal structure, the Readers Club definitely is a phenomenon that needs to be studied to understand why the reading habit in Pakistan has failed to catch on. The club’s assets are its informality, easy access and absence of rigid procedures — all are welcome to attend and one doesn’t have to register as a member.
Neither are those attending required to be armed with knowledge about a book. Each meeting is announced by emails that are sent out to about 300 people but only 25 attend.
Another attraction is the variety of books covered. Since it is not a literary club, the Readers Club explores all kinds of publications — from the mundane to the profoundly intellectual. How well a book is received depends more on the skills of the presenter than the contents of the book itself.
What is remarkable is the capacity of the audience to remain hooked to what is under discussion. Be it Sibte Hasan’s The Battle of Ideas in Pakistan or Jacob Needleman’s Money and the Meaning of Life (to be discussed on Friday),
the discussions they provoke are lively and enlightened. Diverse views are expressed but, as Abbas Husain points out, members disagree without being disagreeable.
Many consider book reading to be a solitary exercise. But that is not the case. In reality, book reading is an interactive activity. People love to exchange ideas with others about a book they have read. This exercise in sharing enhances the pleasure of reading. Abbas Husain feels that one reason why books are not so popular in Pakistan is because there are no forums here for discussing them.
Husain set up the Readers’ Club but found it challenging to attend meetings regularly. He cites the “dynamics of the city, mainly the logistics” and his own work as the reason for his irregularity. Hence the task of sustaining the new creation fell to Azmat Khan, who traces his love for books to his activism in the students’ movement of the 1950s when he was the secretary general of the National Students Federation.
Azmat Khan’s commitment to books provides him the motivation to find a ‘facilitator’ every week to present a book to club members. Sometimes it is an author who presents his or her own book.
The fluency and skills of the facilitator are key factors in the discussion that follows. It is the subject of the book that also creates interest in the audience so much so that as a member, Amanullah,
a retired businessman, graphically observes, “a book is resurrected from its static, writer-centred state to a dynamic, collectivist, reader-focused reality”. Participants want to read the book that has been discussed.
But the fact is that the reading habit should be inculcated in childhood if it is to grow. “Don’t stop children from reading, whatever it may be,” insists Husain, “for once they discover the joy of reading they will graduate to quality literature.”
The good news is that children today are showing more interest in books. Concerted efforts such as the children’s literature festival and events such as OUP’s Dosti kitabon se have made an impact. Schools are the real catchment area and many of them are playing a role in creating a love for books.
The Readers Club has not grown as much as its founders expected. The need is to encourage the proliferation of small reading groups for adults and children in every neighbourhood. Abbas Husain says he would be happy if books made such inroads in our lives that they, instead of politics, became a conversation starter.