When books are spared

WHEN England burnt in the fires lit by rioters and looters earlier this month newspapers in Pakistan gave it wide coverage. Such is the level of interest in the events in the UK which hosts over one million immigrants of Pakistani ancestry.

This paper itself provided its readers sufficient information and comments on the good, the bad and the ugly that came to the fore in London, Birmingham, Liverpool and other British cities. But what I missed in our papers back home was the fate of the British bookshops. Or may be they didn’t make headlines and escaped my notice. My attention was drawn to the bookshops by an opinion piece in the Toronto Star by columnist Heather Mallick, which provided me the trail to articles in the British and American press on an interesting phenomenon. Mallick’s article was pithily headlined, ‘Looters give books a bad review’.

Thebookseller.com, a British website, reported, ‘Bookshops avoid major damage in London rioting’, while the widely read US-based online Huffington Post analysed this event in an article, ‘What the UK riots mean for the bookstores’. Its conclusion as to why the bookstores remained largely unaffected was that what took place was “quite intelligent looting” thus implying that the looters do not read.

It then asked, “Did the bookstores survive because the rioters respect reading — or because they simply don’t care about books? Is this a positive or a negative sign for the future of the industry? Writer Patrick French tweeted his own hopeful theory: “Perhaps last night’s rioters only do their reading on Kindles.”

The conventional wisdom was, as Mallick put it, “the resale value of a book … is derisory compared to jewellery”. Hence the bookshops were safe. In Pakistan many books — especially imported ones — are relatively expensive for middle-class readers lacking purchasing power, yet these items are quite safe when law and order breaks down.

In normal times too sales of books are not high. Print-runs do not even go into four digits generally. A 250-page book can cost as much as Rs500. Of course, a gold earring would cost more. Besides the resale value of books is peanuts. Hence rioters and robbers are not attracted by books. My own experience and of all the people who have become victims of house robberies has been that when robbers ransack a house they invariably leave the books alone. They don’t waste time on them.

As far as rioters go, ours are more arsonists. They just set shops on fire. If there is anything they want, all they have to do is rob which is more civilised than looting. Since there are not too many bookstores around they escape the notice of those out to wreak havoc on public property.

In that context, books appear to be a safe investment in Pakistan. One doesn’t have to spend on guarding them — be it in the form of security guards or bank lockers. But this does not guarantee the future of books. The danger comes from the government. It has never been famous for promoting the publishing industry or encouraging related activities and institutions such as book reading and libraries. If anything, it has been known to ban books whenever it feels threatened by one of them. Remember Ayesha Siddiqa’s Military Inc which exposed the moneymaking enterprises of the armed forces? It wasn’t banned — that strategy has come to be frowned upon — but it was made difficult to obtain. Like hot cakes it always seemed to be sold out. The Oxford University Press termed it its most quick-selling publication.

What is disturbing is that at a time the booksellers tell us that more and more people are turning to books the government is not being very helpful. The international book fair — actually the ratio of national is preponderantly high — that the Pakistan Publishers and Booksellers Association has been organising every year since 2007 has been pulling increasingly larger crowds every year. Held at the Expo Centre, the fair is the scene of hectic activity and becomes a family occasion for the middle classes. It is a pleasure to see so many people, including children, browsing through the books and then walking away with their shopping, impatient to start reading.

The government could help if it didn’t go with full vigour to squeeze the publishing industry to the last drop. No relief has been provided in income tax to publishers while taxes on paper have increased steadily in the last three years leading to a hike in the price of paper by 35 to 40 per cent. If we could somehow popularise book reading, it is quite likely that the level of violence in our society would go down. As Nikesh Shukla writing for the Guardian asks starkly, “Are you more or less likely to riot if you read? What could books offer the looters anyway?”

His answer is spot on. “When the talking starts,” Shukla observes, “all the rhetoric is about community, education, offering the rioters prospects and life expectations and qualifications and journeys towards growing up as well-adjusted members of society. How better to do all these things than with books?”

For Pakistan this process of pacification and teaching human values will have to begin with education. For people can read books only when they are literate. Unfortunately, there are too many in our population who cannot even read. And, of course, those who can read, don’t. That is not everyone.

Source: Dawn

10 thoughts on “When books are spared

  1. —-” —-For Pakistan this process of pacification and teaching human values will have to begin with education. For people can read books only when they are literate. Unfortunately, there are too many in our population who cannot even read. And, of course, those who can read, don’t. That is not everyone. ”

    Two sad facts to put foreward . (1) The * literate * alone can read books. True .

    So when the National Adult Literacy goes into operation, with fits and starts , what do the teachers report about their disheartening experiences ? They report that as soon as the illiterates are taught the letters of the alphabet and can write a word or two, they turn round and say : ” OK , now that we can sign our names and can read, when will you give us jobs ?” The experience is that the newly gained * literacy * is not practiced , nor improved upon____ the neo-literate lapses into unused-literacy .

    (2) In the schools in rural areas, there is no book reading culture at home. Many parents are not literate enough to read for pleasure.

    We have taken a survey about the reading habits of the parent of our school kids.

    Most parents never read a book. At the most some parents do admit to reading a local language daily newspaper. However , should you watch them reading newspapers , one observes that they merely read the * headlines *. In depth reading of the news item is undertaken only about sensational * masala-dar khabar *

    Many rural small town in the tehseels do not even have a reading-room for the public.

    Library habit is a far, far cry away.

    When Mrs. Indira Ghandi was shot dead, there were riots, nationwide.

    Our tiny village -type town too saw some trouble. The angry crowd entered the shop of Sardar Amrik Singh____he used to stock shoes, tape recorders, odd items + BOOKS

    ( He even had Urdu books by Bedi etc ) Well , the crowd looted every thing, * except the books *

  2. When my wife and i transferred house from america to delhi after some four years, we were generally asked "kya laayei wahan se?" When we said "books," pat came the disappointed comment "accha kutch nahi laayei?"
    Generally in the culture of the subcontinent a cup of milk borrowed from a neighbour is duly returned, but books are needlessly picked, taken, never read, and never returned. To this day, we live with a history wherein answers to most conundrums are thought to be available in "received wisdoms" of one sort or another; esp., in scripture; so where is the need to read books? Books asquire meaning only in situations where questioning happens or is encouraged; they can only have a use value, but no exchange value. In societies where norms are sedate, settled and fiercely defended, humanist inquisitveness is severely derided.
    Badri Raina

  3. Madam, I could not agree more. Working for a publishing company for almost a year and half, I found out that the industry has immense growth potential, but very few take risk.

    Furthermore, the problem does not lie with publisher only. They also lie with the content generators. There is a shortage of good writers in the market too.

  4. i have a good personal library-i read a lot of books-i inherited from
    both my father zaheer uddiin khan of sherpur who was anti-british and
    my mother noor us sabah begum-
    but i do not think here people will not take away my books-i intend to
    donate them to karachi university or urdu university.

    1. @ Samin!

      You are perfectly right that the books you intend to donate will never be accepted by most. Old Books are always a GOLD.

      Recently my father expired. He was practicing Ayurvedic (Herbal etc.) medicines. He was having many books as well as hand written recipe on his profession in URDU. He migrated from Pak in 1948 so was comfortable with URDU though was familiar with English, Hindi and Punjabi. I contacted other Doctors of town so that the books and recipe be passed on but none was even ready to listen me. None of Govt agencies or Hospital were ready to accept perhaps due to URDU Language. Ultimately, it was preferred to destroy.

      There are few people like wise your respected parents who are maintaining a personal Library of books and magazine on various subjects and topics.

  5. The riots in England and the love of book owning and reading experience are sociologically very different things. In the most lawless disturbances there is often an object of hate. Most agitated participants are focused on the object of hate burning one thing or the other. The Books, generally speaking, neither form the object of hate or of love , unless it is a copy of the Holy Quran or the "Stanic Verses".

    The rioters or looters have different objectives in a defused circumstance. In the case of general looting sprees , the opportunists do take advantage of the situation. That is what happened recently in England.

    Some may remember a looting spree in the New York stores some years ago when the electricity failed and some of the "customers" took the opportunity of indulging in taking things without paying for them. However it stopped as soon as the lights were restored.

    Books and love of books and the pleasure of reading is only found in sophisticated sections of the societies where the education system lay a great importance on reading for pleasure , asking questions, finding answers and the rest which is/should be the central aim of education.
    In our unfortunate country there is no such tradition. You listen to half literate people from the pulpit, teachers in the college class rooms, the prominent politicians all singing from the same hymn sheet. You are not allowed to ask questions. Even the Newspapers can publish lies and can get away with it , day after day so far the lies are about the powerless in the country . The price of dissent is so high that most individuals shy away from asking the pertinent questions, because it is safe.
    The information is passed by word of mouth, right or wrong, so far it is within the accepted creed, no books are required. Only the books approved of by the government can be read in the educational institutions. In other words pathetic lies are promoted by the writ of the state. Officially approved T.V. anchors, the official Mullahs are allowed free range the rest are restrained by law , by practice, by customs, norms and mimes.

    If you ever travel by air in Pakistan especially from Islamabad to Lahore where most of the Club class travelers, mostly high officials of Army and the Administration are found (Who often do not pay from their own pockets), you will not see a single indigenous individual reading a book. However there will be some foreigners who will be reading.
    It is the culture, the fashion and the accepted trend in the country. The well heeled ladies have loads of time sitting on their back-side mostly eating but never reading. Sad but true. The Books have very little importance. That is why, there is no decent library of any size in the country which one could be proud of.
    The number of new publications of foreign origin are few and far between in even the legislatures' libraries. Sadly the reading habits of our leaders is as deplorable as anyone else.

  6. What a wonderful article which could only be written by a great lover of books. Representing the Pakistan Publishers and Booksellers Association I am thankful to you for highlighting the need of books in our society and appreciating the Karachi International Book Fair the annual literary event organized since 2005 by the Pakistan Publishers and Booksellers Association.
    Ours is a society where shopping malls are cropping up in every locality while bookstores and libraries are closing down. Even we the publishers and booksellers started to doubt the future of books in this age of cable television and internet. With great apprehension but hope as well, the Pakistan Publishers and Booksellers Association took up the task of organising the first Karachi International Book Fair in 2005. To our amazement and against all beliefs an astonishing number of booklovers visited the first KIBF in 2005 and have continued to visit it in increasing numbers every year. In fact last year was the record breaking year in terms of visitors as well as the number of exhibitors at Karachi International Book Fair, 2010.
    How did this miracle take place? Apparently the outlets of books have dwindled and the book lovers have do not have access to the books which are available at different outlets in the city. The traditional centre of book trade, Urdu Bazar has become inaccessible to the majority of the population due to the congestion and pollution and the precarious law and order situation. Where could the families go to browse and buy books? Apparently there was a great need for a central outlet of books where all genres of books for all ages would be available at most reasonable prices. A book lover’s utopia perhaps?. Karachi Expo Centre provided the most appropriate venue for that and the first KIBF came into existence in 2005. Now Karachites eagerly wait for this event in December every year. It is a festival of books for five days from where no one leaves the venue without a bag full of books. The accompanying literary events, book launchings, talk shows and intellectually challenging activities for children have made KIBF a must visit place for families and the enlightened strata of our society.
    We are certain that Karachi International Book Fair will continue to prove the sceptics wrong and will see ever greater heights of success. KIBF gives us all hope for a better and enlightened future for our society. Thank you once again for your support to the Karachi International Book Fair through your columns and writings.

    Aziz Khalid, Zonal Chairman, Pakistan Publishers and Booksellers Association

  7. the subject of riots in england has somehow been diverted by siting irrelevant examples from pakistan.the problem is in england and i think that this country is sinking in its own losing values.love affair of diana with dody and support of english public is the case in point.sohail

  8. Why would robbers, looters, thieves or arsonists have any interest in books? They would not have any use for books but they do know that it is much more profitable to lay hands on anything but books. The Mongol warrior, probably an illiterate himself, was fully aware of the value of books and knowledge; otherwise there was no need for him to have the Library in Baghdad turned into ashes.

  9. I do not remember perfectly the name of English Poet who has said "My never failing friends are they (books) with whom I converse day by day"

    A book never tells lie, always guide correctly and perfectly, never changes any statement, what said today will be said tomorrow, available as and when needed – a friend in need is a friend in deed, keeps a good company at your leisure, shares your sorrows in grief, religiously purifier, no recurring expenses.

    It has been wisely said IT IS BETTER TO MAKE FRIENDSHIP WITH BOOKS RATHER THAN WITH A HUMAN BEING. But pity is that we count the number of human friends but do not know the number of friendly books.

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