Books are man’s best friend. They are the carrier of his intellectual heritage and a matchless source of recreation. In a consumerist and postmodernist age, marked by complexity and uncertainty, books can be a source of deeper meaning and profound consolation. They further bless us with greater inspiration, vivid imagination, critical insight, emotional growth, social maturity and an enriched existence. They are also the midwives of renaissance and enlightenment. Above all, books are the most constructive enterprise of mankind and the highest fruit of a progressive culture and certainly a culture without books is but a stagnant and declining one.
This unfortunate change is something we are also observing in Pakistan where according to several recent findings the general reading habits are rapidly declining and bibliophiles going the way of the dodo. Perhaps what is more perturbing about our national psyche is the loss of serious and quality reading. As the world celebrated the World Book Day on 23rd April, it should be a question of deep concern for all the thinking minds of society that why the reading habits are on the decline among our population?
The fundamental reason for this sorry state of affairs is our education system which is not conducive to the development of general reading habits. Adequate education is not merely about getting a degree or job, but is more importantly a process of overall grooming as well as learning and exploring chiefly on one’s own. However, in our prevalent system these lofty objectives of education are overlooked. It conditions the students in such a way that the seeds of curiosity and inquisition are not sown in them. The students in any case have to fulfil the stereotyped demands of the examination system which fundamentally remain score-oriented in intent. Consequently, the prime aim of education in our case remains securing of grades and jobs at the expense of true knowledge and learning.
The other dominant factor is the changed role of teachers who have ceased to play the pivotal role of shaping the general outlook and learning habits of their students. In the past teachers used to be mentors as well and would genuinely guide their students about the importance of book reading. But today’s teachers, either due to lack of proper training or limited knowledge on their part, seldom mould their students to become avid readers. It seems as if the teachers too have begun to feel that when one can easily access everything on the internet, or from the plethora of sub-standard material, then why one should take pains to turn to an original source or read in depth?
The high rate of inflation in recent years is another culprit which exerts serious constraints on the purchasing power of an average citizen. For example, a large chunk of the earning of a common Pakistani is consumed by a steep rise in the cost of living which leaves him with meagre resources and little leisure to broaden his intellectual vistas. Resultantly, he cannot be expected to say in the same vein of 16th-century Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus, “When I get a little money I buy books, and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” For a Pakistani reader the reverse is true.
Glittering world of internet and obsession with online activities comprise other reasons as they have come to hold a sway over general population’s leisure hours. These activities are not inherently useless in their nature but their misuse or overuse certainly is. Such paraphernalia can be a step ahead in the technological advancement but it can never be a substitute for the significance that books carry. Spending quality time on online activities is a challenge in itself and only offers superficially to feed the mind. A generation which replaces the thought-provoking world of books for triviality and superficiality reflects the degeneration of collective values.
There is a dire need that the general reading habits should be saved from further deterioration. The first prerequisite is that the relevant authorities must initiate a comprehensive and nationwide programme on this issue. For example, it can facilitate the scheme of readers clubs. One such worthy effort was made in the past when National Book Foundation entitled its members a subsidy of 50% on the purchase of its books. But since one club is not sufficient to cater to the requirements of a large population like ours there is a need that more and more programmes should be set afoot. It can be hoped that people across the length and breadth of the country will eagerly enrol themselves as members of such societies when there are genuine concessions and encouragement.
The government can also launch a scheme in which cheap editions are brought out. The general reading habits within the western world were revolutionised with the introduction of paperback editions by the Penguin Books way back in 1930s. Similarly, in the 1970s low priced books scheme of the English Language Book Society (ELBS) proved a boon for the students and teachers alike. The wide availability of paperbacks in the western societies enables the common man to easily access them. Consequently, despite the influx of other sources of information, books have maintained their vitality within the western culture.
The publishing industry also stands in need of state patronage. The relevant authorities need to give tax concessions to this sector. It is a largely a self-run sector but remains immensely burdened by the taxation woes. The common logic given for levying excessive duty is the need for greater revenue generation without sparing a thought for the commune bonum. If taxing the publishing sector remained unresolved it would further increase its cost of doing business whose burden in the form of expensive books will be ultimately shifted to general public and is certain to further halt their encouragement to read. To this end, the authorities should sit with the representatives of the book trade and remove their grievances concerning duties, means of printing, economics of paper etc.
Last, but perhaps most important, our education system has to be transformed along the lines which inculcate lifelong learning habits among the students. We need to distil the wisdom from words of Thomas Carlyle, “What we become depends on what we read after all of the professors have finished with us. The greatest university of all is a collection of books.” We need to realise that those who study only the course books or professional texts may succeed in getting good marks or a job, but those who read beyond these formalities will eventually lead more fulfilled and productive lives. The need of the hour is that both the state and society must encourage that ethos where progressive elements such as intellectual cut-and-thrust, freedom of discourse, and research and learning are encouraged. Till then goals such as progress, development, pluralism and enlightenment will remain forlorn dreams.