Why read?

The ability to reason, analyse and think critically is tied with reading

Irum Maqbool April 19, 2018
The writer is a psychologist with an interest in international relations

Every year on April 23rd Unesco celebrates World Book and Copyright Day. This year Athens, Greece, has been chosen as the world book capital for a year. The initiative aims to make books accessible to the entire population of the city. The significance of books in shaping ideas, sparking revolutions or forming personalities can never be underestimated, the readers and admirers of a range of books, from Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto to L M Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, will testify to this. On this day we should take stock of our want to read and ability to respect intellectual property.

Although marked with a lack of statistics, the publishing industry of Pakistan has textbooks as its major output. The pursuit of literary pleasures is dismal. Urdu authors have shifted towards writing screenplays for the TV industry. A drama or a movie with words brought to life onscreen can never do in 20 episodes what a book can do in a few pages, as reading enriches the imagination, no longer fixed in space or confined by props. Whereas most dramas dedicate dozens of scenes to soliloquy, a book relies on the intuitive skills of its readers. It can well be argued that the masses are turning into a silent audience, forfeiting their duty to be thinkers with well-meaning opinions.

A handful of writers have been bestowed by the fortune to be household names in this part of the world, most belonged to the last century or played a leading role in founding Pakistan. Mohsin Hamid and Muhammad Hanif were awarded Sitara-e-Imtiaz this year, writings by both are published by publishers in the US or the UK. How many people have read those awarded the third-highest civilian award is a question, the answer to which can be deduced with the least effort.

The decrepit condition of public libraries is a stark reminder of where priorities lie. Latest publications are not purchased and titles held are not updated. Hence new knowledge is seldom gained and the previously acquired one is often obsolete and redundant, an abysmal state of affairs that rhymes with many the library is to serve: people who can read (but do not).

Pakistan has ratified the Berne Convention (World Intellectual Property Organisation) and the TRIPS agreement for protection of intellectual property, enforcement of these and local copyright acts remains low. The malaise of plagiarism is even affecting academia at all levels. Private schools often disseminate worksheets downloaded from the internet, assignments almost invariably copied from the internet, with no credit to the original authors and no sources cited. Often self-help books are translated into Urdu and sold locally, the translator posing as the author.

Unlike the rest of national issues, this one cannot be solely blamed on an outsider. The middle class, the primary consumers can choose which entertainment to spend their money on. Often an ‘expensive’ book is to be justified; and not a piece of clothing that is seven times more expensive. Can it be inferred then, that what meets the eye is all that is significant? That what we eat and wear defines us and this in itself is an idea worth upholding?

The ability to reason, analyse and think critically is tied with reading. Textbooks and prescribed readings do not count, since they do not display a personal choice. In the absence of such interests we as a nation will, by our own doing, find other people to think for us. Without reading there will be no imagination, in its place will be an embodiment of characters. The ability to imagine is an important reservoir one can draw from in times that require emotional strength; it also leads to much-needed innovation. The quality of literature a civilisation produces stands testimony to its depth, its level of sophistication and its ideals. If we as a nation do not foster written works, can it mean we are losing our depth?

Published in The Express Tribune, April 19th, 2018.

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