Reading books in Pakistan

Published: December 9, 2012

Reading will be promoted only when the average citizen takes to the habit. PHOTO: ONLINE

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.

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Reader Comments (20)

  • Bookseller
    Dec 9, 2012 - 10:45PM

    “Lahore’s conservatism, too, has damaged the essentially pluralist pastime of book-reading.”
    Don’t you think that’s a bit of a stretch. Not to mention unsubstantiated.


  • abu-uzhur
    Dec 10, 2012 - 6:35AM


    Very perceptive of you to point out the increasing squeezing of multi-cultural space in our

    society as reflected in our bookstores. A year back I scoured bookstores of

    Lahore for books in urdu which would nurture cosmopolitan and liberal outlook in my

    grand-children . Could find none .Recommend

  • IZ
    Dec 10, 2012 - 8:56AM

    “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”

    This is your explanation of the invention of the book? You’re kidding, right?


  • HH
    Dec 10, 2012 - 9:41AM

    Very good editorial: I am an avid reader and I feel bad about the distance between us and the book. You are right that cost of books is a factor; however, i cant understand why we cant publish books on cheap paperbacks as happens in the world. Why we have to print hardbacks with glossy papers. This is the best way to bring the cost down.

    Another big reason is the arrogance of our so called litrary critics. Our Litrary critics only consider people like Ashfaq Ahmed, Mumtaz Mufti, Quaratulen Haider as ‘Adeebs’, and we completely disregard writers like Ibn-e-Safi. You hardly see any promotion of this type of fiction in Pakistan, whereas the truth is that the readership of suspence/thriller writers is much higher in the world than the other dry subjects (no disrespect!). In US/Europe, Thriller/Suspence writers like John Grisham, John Le carre, Ken Follett, Robert Ludlum recevies the equal publicity and better readership. However, in Pakistan, Fiction writers (including thrillers and romance) are still third grade citizens


  • Goran
    Dec 10, 2012 - 9:55AM

    Paper gave rise to human civilization?


  • IZ
    Dec 10, 2012 - 10:29AM

    This editorial is hilarious. There is some kind of logical fallacy or factual inaccuracy every 2 or 3 lines. For example:

    “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.”

    So you’re saying the Dark Ages occurred because Europe stopped reading books? Uh, no. And then there are gems like:

    “Paper, which gave rise to human civilisation, is expensive because global ecology does not permit its manufacture as cheaply as in the past.”

    Firstly I would suggest that if you use google you will discover that the cost of inputs (e.g. wood pulp) in paper production have been decreasing over the last few years. Paper production cost has not been getting more expensive as you claim. Then the claim that paper gave rise of human civilization is ludicrous since it was invented in the 2nd century A.D. in China, from where it spread to the Middle East and only reached Europe in the 13th century A.D. which incidentally is a full 1800 years after Solon lived. To credit the invention of paper with the rise of human civilisation is absurd.

    At the risk of sounding facetious, may I suggest that if you wish to write about why the Dark Ages happened or how civilisation arose you should maybe read a book or two?


  • abu-uzhur
    Dec 10, 2012 - 2:19PM


    Books symbolise man’s eternal quest for truth . A society in possession of

    eternal truths needs no books . This explains the decline of books in our

    culture . Younger generation is protected from books which are likely to contaminate their

    minds with skepticism about the eternal truths .


  • Sarah
    Dec 10, 2012 - 4:25PM

    Do punjabis read? I thought they were too shallow for that


  • Baba Ji
    Dec 10, 2012 - 5:06PM

    Book ??? whats that ? a new tablet by Samsung or Apple ?


  • sabi
    Dec 10, 2012 - 5:31PM

    and we completely disregard writers like Ibn-e-Safi. You hardly see any promotion of this type of fiction in Pakista
    Don’t you see the class,inspired by ibne safi and Nasin hijazi has reached top posts in civil and military bureaucracy and has sunk the ship.


  • abu-uzhur
    Dec 10, 2012 - 7:28PM


    My last visit to Urdu Bazaar and to the annual book exhibition in Fortress Stadium

    show that Editorial is not stretching things , he is so close to reality .


  • Falcon
    Dec 10, 2012 - 8:01PM

    A humble suggestion for the author. When espousing on the details of a trend, why not just restrict the discussion to underlying factors (cost, demographics, educational propensity,etc) rather than mixing politics, ideologies, and history. The article started out well but then became a blender of hodgepodge of ideas losing focus.


  • Falcon
    Dec 10, 2012 - 8:04PM

    Don’t you think it is unfair to put Mumtaz Mufti, Ashfaq Ahmed, and Ibn-e-Safi in the same category to begin with? There is a difference between reading for enlightenment and reading for entertainment.


  • Muhammad Irfan khan wazir
    Dec 14, 2012 - 3:40PM

    Radicalization will spread and people will adopt the extremist type of ideas. our religious writer are narrow minded and presenting the Islam in different form which would be not accept by any well-educated person. The percentage of learned people is very low in our Islamic country and we are dependent on our Molvis. We have no own thinking and decision power that what is right and what is wrong. I sure that in this Islamic book fair there will be books which could spread hatred among different sects. Could motivate the people for different type of acts to do. History could repeat therefore……….


  • Abdullah Hashim
    Dec 17, 2012 - 3:14AM

    The rise in the sale of religious books is a very good thing but only selling religious book or included in book fair is not a good one like Islam don’t only appreciate or promote only the knowledge of islam. Islam is religion of peace and love but unfortunately we are not on the right track.
    “All of us should promote books of other knowledge too”


  • Hammad Ali Chouhan
    Dec 17, 2012 - 7:56AM

    The society is attack by many different ways and one of the main cause for that is that people are being Illiterate. In many countries i have seen students getting prepare for IQ, General Knowledge and much more. Where does this habit of reading in them come form? It’s that they encourage the culture or reading which not only sharpen there knowledge but build there character as well. It would be my humble request and what i strongly believe is reading will be promoted only when the average citizen takes to the habit.


  • goven
    Dec 17, 2012 - 11:11AM

    Keeping in mind that knowledge is the key to success. This knowledge is not a particular knowledge like of a religion, sports or of some other category. To have success we have to love knowledge. And the prime source of knowledge is from books. There is a bad and also a good impact of increase in selling of Islamic books. The good side is that at least we can know the point of view of our religion towards different situation or certain problems that we are facing today. And the bad thing is that it may lead us to extremism. At the end, excess of every thing is bad.


    Dec 17, 2012 - 11:24AM

    In few cities of Pakistan there are few people who are extremist mindset but we have gew people

    selling of religious books is also good step in bad situation of country because enimies of country easily trap the innocent people by emotional black mail because comman people do not know the actual values of islam


  • Ali Naveed
    Dec 18, 2012 - 5:39PM

    The rise in selling of Islamic book is a sign of religious activism.Islam emphasize on learning.We can see that Islam pay special attention on men and women to acquire knowledge in both worldly and Islamic areas.Islam says that killing one innocent is like killing the whole mankind.The conservative mindset would never be able to understand what Islam is all about these people use Islam to achieve their cruel and brutal motives.All the extremism is the result of wrong teachings of Islam by our leaders in order to makes us their puppets.So if you are really getting spiritual day by day and a real Muslim you could be never an extremist because Islam never promotes extremism


  • ayesha khalid
    Dec 19, 2012 - 10:15AM

    I think almost everything in this world has well and bad expect and it’s up to us that how we perceive it. Same is the thing with increase in selling number of religious book. We know excess of everything is bad and it has a bad effect on our personality and mentality too. If we are totally cut off from religious book then it’s not good for us and our life style. For the betterment of life we should read religious book and explore them that what is in our religion and how religion are gave permission to handle the situation. On the other hand if we read too much religious book and not be able to maintain a balance between Islam and modernized point of view then it creates a lot of problem and disturbance in the society.


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