You’ve got to hand it to the French. As a Parisian publisher told The New York Times (NYT), “There are two things you don’t throw out in France — bread and books.” The business of books is booming. Sales are on the up and up, with books flying off the shelves of some 2,500 stores (700 in Paris alone). The same gentleman went on, “In Germany, the most important creative social status is given to the musician. In Italy, it’s the painter. Who’s the most important creator in France? It’s the writer.” Gushed the NYT, “The French have a centuries-old reverence for the printed page.”
But in Britain, brick-and-mortar bookstores are taking a beating at the hands of Amazon, ink losing to e-book. Digital volumes may outsell print ones by 2015, while Amazon’s e-tailing has already driven store chains like Borders straight to bankruptcy. Some point to karma — Borders and big boys like it edged out many a smaller bookseller in its day. Others look to France, where the state itself fixed the prices of French-language books, making it harder for e-giants to dump their wares. Yet more suggest turning British bookstores into one-stop culture hubs, with music and film stuffed in.
Unlike with Britain and France though — where the fight is now to keep bricks-and-mortar (and ink and print) alive in the age of the Kindle — the Pakistani problem is basic: no one reads. While wider excuses exist, from economics to illiteracy, the internet isn’t one of them.
This crisis is cultural. In among the best pieces on the issue, Aysha Raja asked, “So what makes us believe that we can get by without reading? If I were to hazard a guess, I would say it’s the wholesale debasing of the intellect. It struck me first when a college graduate attributed the intellect to ‘intellectuals’, as if to imply that only a small class of people should be called upon to read and think. The rest, if I were to extrapolate, remain to work, build businesses, design lawn and raise kids.”
Despite a sweaty addiction to its papers and politics and Faisal Raza Abidis, the public is not keen on knowledge beyond the day-to-day. Even for the itty bitty fragment that read in English, the sudden burst of Pakistani fiction isn’t the renaissance it’s cracked up to be. Readership is, and mostly was, a flat blue line.
Couple this with Pakistan’s poison of choice — ‘the security situation’ — and it seems even the atmosphere is against educating ourselves. Peshawari bookstores are crashing and burning so hard, they may well rename themselves Munawwar Hassan. The famed Old Book Shop is gone for good. After 55 years, the Maktaba-e-Sarhad bookstore’s heading for heaven. “Those who love reading books have no money, and those with money are busy in other activities,” said owner Haji Rasheed, with tears in his eyes.
Saeed Book Bank, too, bit the bullet two years ago. “There’s no reading culture in Peshawar,” said the actual Saeed. The store’s cousin in Islamabad, thankfully, seems healthier. “I know of no better bookstore in South Asia,” Sweden’s foreign minister tweeted last year. Telling words, those; Islamabad outlets are no doubt helped along by grateful guests from abroad.
But where the market doesn’t tread, the state won’t ever. Karachi University’s Mahmud Hussain Library is falling apart at the hinges; five storeys of 400,000 books, among them the Quaid’s personal collection, is underfunded and woefully maintained. The floors are dusty, the bathrooms filthy, and its famous newspapers ripe with rot. Just September saw vandals break in to take cash and computers. Sad that the man that it was named for thought knowledge a sacred trust, and fought Ayub Khan’s troops from vaulting over the walls of Dhaka University in the late sixties. Today, Dr Mahmud Hussain’s library lies in the same ruins as his life’s twin concerns: the spread of the social sciences, and the rights of East Pakistanis.
The story goes that when Hercules slew his six sons, he was ordered 10 tasks by the king to cleanse himself. Much of these Labours of Hercules was the stuff Greek bronze is made of: of hinds and hydras and sword-swinging. But the fifth task, cleansing the Augean stables, was designed to humiliate. Augeas was a lazy king with herd upon herd of cattle — and a stable covered in acres of dung as a result.
In civilised lands, the stables are invoked as an example, man’s monument to filth and neglect. In ours, they are tourist attractions: it was another Augeas from fertile Punjab, a chief secretary not unlike the crazy king, that dumped 400 years of our heritage in the civil secretariat’s stables. Majid Sheikh, a gentleman of endless insight into Lahore, wrote how “70,000 rare books and under a million documents and manuscripts” were dumped where “stink and humidity litter the senses”. Thus Thomas Roe’s litho prints, 1,000-year-old Sanskrit, and originals in Ghalib’s own handwriting, become one with the dust.
As with the faceless nature of Punjab’s bureaucracy (a survival method for some), the why and the what remain unclear. But it’s a problem blind to province, and the serial offenders — from paper-pushers in Punjab to the keepers of Karachi University — are best-served reading some Zadie Smith:
“Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay ... A library is a different kind of social reality, which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal.”
In our case, plowing private money into booksellers would still be a worthy cause and much, much needed help besides. Reading needs to be made a national priority, and our cultural outfits require hard reassessment. As for the state, when it gets bored of its fat syaasi parties, it may try patronising its publishers instead. Given the track record, it’s only the latter that will feed a fresh generation.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 12th, 2013.
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