The pleasure of reading

By Zubeida Mustafa

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.

Source: Dawn

19 thoughts on “The pleasure of reading

  1. I try to read your article when ever it is published in Daily Dawn.I have just read your article in Daily Dawn published today (9 may 2012) " The pleasure of reading". It was pleasure reading that.Couldn't agree more. My observation is that we don't read at all yet we talk with authority on all subjects. The talk shows on private TV Channels are testimony of the same and difficult to watch and I feel they are doing more harm to the nation then any good ,specially to the young ones. We should have more libraries that are easily assessable to common man. In my view Libraries should be part of any residential projects that is approved. We also need to make our libraries more attractive place to visit.


  2. Dear madam, as I sat in the court reading your artilce 'the pleasure if reading' during wait for my case to be called, I decided to immediately share my views with you on this matter. I would totally agree with you that parents are to blame for the poor reading habit amongst the children today. I feel it because i consider myself a victim to such apathy. Various steps can be taken t address this falling trend. I would make one suggestion. I have noted that parents give due attention to the suggestions/obervations made by their children's teachers at interactive events such as parent-teachers meeting at schools. If teachers are asked to advise the parents that they should inculcate reading habit for non-academic books amongst their children as it is necessary for their proper grooming. I am sure parents will give due consideration to such suggestion by the teachers. I believe if one big step is required to acheieve a target and it seems difficult, the target should be acheieved by taking many small steps. I hope my suggestion will be one such small step.

  3. For a generation brought up on TV with its instant passive pleasure, the Japanese comic book route may be a good solution. It would enhance the skills of Pakistani illustrators and writers to produce serious material which can be conveyed through comics. See:

    No Laughing Matter: Comic Books Have Serious Educational Value
    In Japan Manga Teaches Tough Lessons

  4. The NBF is a wonderful organization. They have taken a lot of initiatives to introduce reading in the society. However, a synergy between NBF and publishers have to exist. Many of NBF's award-winning authors have yet to get their books published. And, I am not here pointing out anyone but talking about the industry in general.

    Furthermore, the numbers that NBF has placed might not be very accurate. Several small publishers do not care about the ISBN. Same case is the case with self-publishers. Many publishers publish many different editions of the same book using single ISBN. Furthermore, I wonder how many of those 2,000+ books were text-books? Publishers in Pakistan prefer textbooks over general interest books.

    1. I agree with Saad's point regarding the number of books published in Pakistan. There are some Balochi-specific publishers which publish dozens of books in Balochi language every year and none of them use ISBN. Same is the case with self-publishers of Balochi books too.

      1. One thing should be clarified here. The National Library is the repository of books published here. That means, under the law, any book published in Pakistan has to be sent to the NLP whether it has an ISBN or not. The figures supplied by Mr Sherwani are for the books they receive and accession and catalogue. I agree that given our record of abiding by the law, many books will have ISBN but will not be counted as they were not sent in, Others will not have an ISBN but will be sent and will be counted.

        1. Indeed, but the repository is usually tracked by ISBN or by newspaper information. A strict policy for the usage of ISBN should be in place. This will help us a lot especially in the cases where Urdu qaidas teach 'bay' for 'bomb' and 'te' for 'talwaar'.

  5. well written…just wanted to add a little thing, for our children to become readers it is extremely important to provide them books. we have neither school libraries/community libraries for children nor do we have books available…especially in districts, it is very difficult to find good books for children. we need to put books in children's hands, especially in primary school, so that a reading habit can be fostered at the right age.

  6. A UNIVERSAL topic. Books have been treated like a true friend – who will remain with you in case of all needs. Books never change likewise weather and human being. In journey also books give a good company. Really it matters as what or which a book be selected.

    The parents are best judge to decide and make an ever lasting habit of children. A poet has remarked books as

    "My never failing friends are they (books) with whom I have conversed(read or spend) day by day".

  7. Heartiest congratulations on getting the well deserved Award.

    As regards the book reading habit, it might be a good idea to request
    the school owners to devote one period a week to Book Reading where
    children can read aloud from the classics and thereby get other
    children interested in reading.

    Wishing more power to your pen and more laurels in future,

  8. padd padd hovei pathar, tei likh likh hovei choor,
    jiss paddnei se daulat milei woh paddna kutch aur.

  9. Indeed Ms. Mustafa there is so much that can be done. I have always fantasized about a manual (software and hardware) on how to start a little library in your neighbourhood. It may initially consist of borrowed books used books whatever but a library nonetheless.

    Did you ever stop to think in US and Canada in hundreds of thousands of school and public libraries millions of books are sold off for scrap (RUDDY). Academic curriculum is revised every three years, which requires a complete new set of books for all sujects and grades. These are perfectly beautiful books produced on glossy paper, hard bound and nicely illustrated. Public libraries frequently remove injured and outdated books to make room for new titles. They would gladly donate them. If we could persuade Pakistanis to do the leg work for collection and shipping of books to Pakistanis.

    1. The books which libraries in the US, UK and Canada sell for scrap usually come into the mainstream Pakistani bazaar. Many of the poor- and middle-class families benefit from these books.

  10. Along with the need to cultivate the habit of reading books it is MUST to know what and when to read. Their are too many writers whose books were not simply rejected but were forced to face litigation are now being counted as 'best books' and writers are being honored.

    Let us take example of Saadat Hasan Minto. He was on this day of May, 11 in Ludhiana District and originally was a Kashmiri. Strangely he wrote too many books and stories in URDU though he failed miserably in URDU. He was neither good at Hindi subject. His well known books are Kaali Salwar, Boo (bad smell), Dhanda Gosht, Uppar Niche and Darmiyan, Bitter Fruit, Dhuan, Khol Do etc etc. For each and every writing he faced litigation, prosecution, arrests. He remained travelling between Bombay, Lahore and Karachi. The last court fine he paid was Rs. 25 in Lahore. Strangely his father was sub-judge. Similarly Ismat Chugtai's book LIHAAF (bed sheet) faced litigation and travelled from Bombay to Lahore.

    Saadat Hasan Minto migrated to Lahore in 1948 and died in 1955.

    NOW: He has been graded as a legend writer and too many are busy to translate his books in other so many languages. In other words "Murde nu puje eh duniya; jinde di keemat kuchh bhi nahin. Jee karda hai iss duniya nu mein has ke thokar mar diya; (A man is worshiped after death and during his life he holds no value so wish to die soon and happily).

    The books which are not good now may be declared best and which are best now may be declared bad one.

    @ Dear All: Too difficult to know as which should be read and which books be ignored.

    Long Live Saadat Hasan Minto!!!

    1. The information for those who are interested can visit India Habitat Centre, New Delhi at 7 pm to get knowledge about Saa"dat Hasan Manto – Mantoyat. One can reach at page 'Calender of Events' at It says " THEATRE – Dastangoi On the occasion of Sa'adat Hasan Manto's birth centenary Mantoiyat (Urdu/120mins with interval) A Dastangoi presentation on the life and times of Manto. Compiled by Mahmood Farooqui. Performed by Danish Husain & Mahmood Farooqui. Tickets at Rs.350, Rs.250 & Rs.100 available at the Programmes Desk from Aug.3 for IHC members only. Open to all from Aug.6. An Old World Culture presentation".

      It is a pity that Saadat through out his life continued to face court cases and traveling from one city to city over his writings. His books were never praised. Booksellers were also harassed. He decided to migrate to Pak just with a hope that muslim community will help him out but he died in 1955 in Lahore.

      As he was born in India and spent his life in India (except last few years) and now India is caring for this great writer.

      My pain thrust is that the books which are not worth to read may be treated as bible in coming years so very difficult to know as which book or literature or history is to read or which one to avoid.

  11. @Dear All,
    Today evening I posted the above post. And while scrolling Tribune I got the page earmarked for Saadat Hasan Manto. (Sorry earlier I spelled it as Minto and also I could not make it clear that he was BORN on 11.5.1912 in Ludhiana Distt. @ Zubeida your moderation please?)

    Please read at
    that Saadat Hasan has been recommended for highest civilian award.

    He may or may not be awarded with highest civilian award but once he has been proved to us all that what he wrote was of quality writing. Just imagine his mindset as he was made to face litigation for each and every writing and now (after his death) being suggests for AWARD for each and every writing.

    No doubt he migrated to Pakistan and died in Lahore but he contributed too much for united India.

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