The 8th Karachi International Book Fair that opened on December 6 lasting through to the 10th has become an annual event with far-reaching implications for a nation that reads less with each passing year and reads increasingly into the past instead of the present and future. Also, it reads more in Urdu today than in the past, with English becoming less and less accessible as a vehicle of new knowledge. The presiding factor in the decline of reading is the expensive cost of books, which is a worldwide phenomenon signalling, perhaps, the end of the book in human history.
The book has been a vehicle of knowledge, which seems to have begun with the invention of the word ‘book’ in the divine revelations of all religions: it meant the passage of humanity from the oral-pagan tradition to religious wisdom and civilisation. The invention of paper put the book in global circulation, thus universalising knowledge and making humanity interconnected. It also meant the breaking of the isolation of cultures and civilisations and the penetration of societies frozen in ideologies by alien views of life. When the book declined, civilisation, too, declined. What began in Europe with Solon’s Athens disappeared in the Dark Ages when, shockingly, Europe forgot how to read and write.
The book fair in Karachi has held on for eight years, which is a signal of hope in a city slowly being swallowed up by the barbarism of those who hate culture and want to destroy it. According to one estimate, the fair attracts 200,000 people, making transactions worth Rs100 million in four days. (This means that 1.2 per cent of Karachiites actually read books.) But this is a figure of four years ago. Karachi is cruelly debilitated by the terrorism of the intervening years. The fair can actually be the target for the terrorists who want to achieve high casualty rates in short order. But the truth is that Karachi still reads more than any other city in the country. It stands out against a background of cities in the rest of Pakistan gradually dying in the face of violence and a collapsing economy. Book-reading is integral to culture and economic prosperity, both in retreat in Pakistan and, tragically, in the Islamic world.
The fair being international means there will be books from outside Pakistan, including India. In the past, Indian participation showcased India’s superiority in the book trade, especially in the section that sells books written in English. However, the trend has been in favour of religious books. Islamic books topped the list of the most purchased titles in Karachi for several years but fell to second position when politics and memoirs of public figures took the lead. Will that be the case this year, too? It may not even apply to other cities of the country where publishing is now dominated by religion, pointing to a clear linguistic divide that empowers a narrative that could be challenged in the market of ideas. Becoming isolated in a globalised world is the first sign of decline in civilisation and of defeat in intellectual contest.
Stark facts cannot be ignored. Reading will be promoted only when the average citizen takes to the habit. (The well-to-do are benefiting from the new trade of international remainders bought en masse by some traders, but that only creates a deviant minority rather than a mass following of non-doctrinal knowledge). With the economy in decline and unemployment on the increase, books simply cannot be afforded. Paper, which gave rise to human civilisation, is expensive because global ecology does not permit its manufacture as cheaply as in the past. Pakistan is under assault from forces of darkness. The killers promote the same ideology as the ideology of the state which means that the state itself is vulnerable. People are shifting from idioms that puncture the illusion of the false utopia the terrorists promote. Pakistan is introverted on the basis of a sense of victimhood based on state-invented fiction. Cities such as Rawalpindi, Quetta and Peshawar that boasted some great bookshops are now selling only religious books and most shops have been closed down. Lahore’s conservatism, too, has damaged the essentially pluralist pastime of book-reading.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 10th, 2012.