The smell of fresh java brewing in the corner coffee shop; otherwise a musk of pages, innumerable spines and glossy covers permeates the warmly lit interior of this Shangri-La for readers.
This is a vignette of life inside Barnes & Noble, America’s premium bookstore and veritable Mecca for those who still read seriously (although the population is continuously thinning). Online or in person, people who buy here tend to know exactly what they want, customer satisfaction guaranteed. But in Pakistan, especially Islamabad, hunting for decent fiction can sometimes be futile, and often one goes home without getting anything initially.
Granted, you’ll be able to find every volume of Karen Armstrong’s scholarship on comparative religion — a special fondness for gender and Islam. That or practically all treatises on South Asian politics, Central Asian conflict, or anything to the extent of Noam Chomsky and Ahmed Rashid, literally kamikaze off the shelves at innocent browsers. Good writing by non-mainstream authors is a more elusive find.
Most sojourners will start their literary journey at Saeed Book Bank, trusting the size of the place and its misleading aura of convenience. But large as it may be, the store offers a haphazard and pricey selection of contemporary fiction. And don’t bother asking the staff for help; they are just as confused and will look dazed and mildly terrified if asked for something by, say, David Foster Wallace or Michael Crichton. “No, we don’t have these,” will be the reply.
Ergo, the quest for the perfect tome becomes a lonely affair with only the store’s tenuous grasp on alphabetisation by last name. More absurd: the stand for ‘Latest Releases’ showcases novels like Life of Pi (2001) and A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008), which begs the question: in what alternate chronological universe are both publications considered ‘latest’? Blame new arrivals that take their sweet time before turning up on the racks. Jonathan Franzen’s recent opus, Freedom, published August 31, 2010, appeared here six months later, when the rest of the literary world had moved on to other pursuits.
Another problem: half of the fiction racks are devoted entirely to mouldy antiquates (Don Juan anyone?) and the ‘classics’ of European literature, which is fine for literature buffs but severely limits contemporary options. Also, it’s impressive the amount of space designated for chick-lit (Jodi Picoult), pseudo-intellectualism (Paulo Coelho) and airport variety thrillers (John Grisham).
The harsh fluorescent lighting, noise and stationary store ambiance also makes the whole experience unnecessarily stressful, which is why book worms are crawling elsewhere.
“Book Bank is so expensive. I’ve started checking out old bookstores – there is one facing Saeed Book Bank. You have to invest a little time but the finds are great,” says Anam Khan, 22, one of many taking to the charm of small-scale book retailers. They’re cheaper too; one can walk out with two or three books, maybe even with old, leather-bound hard-back editions (they have tons of beautiful antiques) with a nice, ornate cover, all under Rs800.
London Book Company in Kohsar Market, although unnervingly narrow downstairs, has a stellar and reasonably priced collection under classics, astrology — to name a few categories — on the second floor and a picturesque cafe (Riff’s Cafe) where you can check out your options over coffee and a smoked chicken sandwich.
Vanguard Books is another strong contender, ideal for locating works considered more obscure by local standards and prolific when it comes to non-fiction, literary theory and philosophy.
The Last Word Press outlet at Hotspot in sector E-11, albeit a trek for those who aren’t living in the vicinity, wins for relevance and its diverse range of modern, iconic writing. They have a balanced, although expensive, collection of must-reads and all-time bestsellers (declared by The New York Times).
So while all is not lost, one is left thinking that it would be better to invest hard earned cash, because in Islamabad it doesn’t pay to read well and takes a lot of work.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 4th, 2011.