What’s in a book?

By Zubeida Mustafa

IT is a pleasant paradox that in recent years literature festivals have taken Pakistan by storm when our society is not exactly famous for its reading habit. For long we have mourned — and do so even today — our failure to inculcate the love of reading in our children who grow up to be adults with no interest in books.

Hence the flood of events related to books and literature for people of all ages is something to celebrate. They are designed to promote the book culture.

whats-in-the-book applaud the brain, the commitment and the untiring effort of the organisers of these activities especially in times when we need them most. But what leaves me flabbergasted is the negative approach of people to books not printed on paper in the conventional way. What is strange is that this view comes from those who have themselves contributed phenomenally to our literary heritage. Their interest should lie in expanding readership.

Why should people resist books in their electronic form?

It is not the content or the genre or the style or the language or the design of the books they criticise. They are downright contemptuous of any book employing modern technology.

The impression they give is that a book is not a book if they cannot feel the texture and smell the fragrance of the paper it is printed on or hear the rustling sound of the pages being turned. True, these are pleasant sensations which many readers enjoy. But that doesn’t justify rejection of the ‘power of words’ not transcribed on paper, especially when new technology is not displacing books in the form we have known them for centuries.

Some are so averse to technology that they feel that mechanisation (masheeni tohfey as they dub it) is ruining the world by destroying the care and affection that are central to human relationships. That may be true when technology pre-empts personal interaction between people so essential for mankind to bond.

But how does a Kindle, which just needs a touch to display books — 400 its manufacturers claim — be deleterious for the human race? Book reading is a personal act. A discourse that comes in its wake is social activity that an e-book or Kindle doesn’t prevent.

We first need to be clear about what is a book. Wikipedia defines a book as “a set of written, printed, illustrated, or blank sheets, made of ink, paper, parchment, or other materials, usually fastened together”. It goes on to say: “A set of text-filled or illustrated pages produced in electronic format is known as an electronic book, or e-book.” Note here that even the use of digital technology doesn’t deprive an e-book of the status of a book.

The etymology of the word in the Germanic and Slavic languages leads us to ‘beech’ which is a tree. Initially barks of tree and wood were used to record words. Book production was truly revolutionised with the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenburg in the 15th century. It made a difference not because of its form but because the printed text became accessible to a large number of people easily and at low cost. This facilitated the dissemination of knowledge and information.

The electronic books — the masheeni tohfey — have gone a step further in the process of accessibility and cost reduction. Be it a book printed on paper, an e-book, or Kindle or even the audio book using sound as the medium rather than the image, its ultimate function is to transmit the text to the reader/listener.

So I fail to understand why people should resist books in their electronic form. Readers may enjoy one or the other and no one questions their right to do so. But a writer should be inclusive and promote literary works in all forms.

Remember Mirza Ahmed Jamil, the protagonist of Noori Nastaleeq, whose calligraphy and commitment enabled Urdu to be printed by computerised programmes rather than being transcribed by hand by katibs slogging over their work for months? It revolutionised printing in our local scripts. We do have notoriously short memories.

Maybe, many among us are averse to new inventions as age limits the capacity to acquire new skills.

Yet there are others in their twilight years who understand and admire the wonders of technology and have the foresight to encourage its use. Hasn’t digitalisation extended the intellectual life of those with visual disability by several years where medical science has failed to keep pace? Kindle has enriched the minds of many and the writers who have reached the disabled should rejoice in the invention of the masheeni tohfa.

Allama Iqbal was after all right when he said: “Aaeen-i-nau se darna/Tarz-i-kuhan pe arna/Manzil yehee kathan hai/Qaumon ke zindagi mein. (To fear new methods/To stick to the old/This is the big challenge/In the lives of nations.)

Source: Dawn