A well known publisher once expressed his concern about the declining reading habit these days. He seemed to be extremely worried and started a discussion on Facebook asking how to encourage reading habit. Some people gave very good input. The discussion was over in a few days — the usual lifetime of any Facebook post. However, couple of months later, the publisher posted the same query once again! This time nobody replied to him. It turned out that the publisher used to post the same query every few months.
This time I also did not reply. But afterwards, some thoughts kept coming to me regarding the publisher’s post. The first question that occurred to me was — how does the publisher know that the reading habit is on the decline? By the number of books sold by that publisher? This immediately led to doubts about the motivation of his post. Is the publisher really concerned for the declining reading habit, or is he worried simply because his books are not getting sold?
Does the number of books sold give a correct estimate about the reading culture of a society? For example, nearly all cities have book clubs, public libraries and reading rooms that serve the needs of book lovers. Thanks to these facilities, readers do not have to buy every book that they want to read. Besides, borrowing and exchanging books is also common among children and youth. In this way, one person purchases a book, which is then read by several others. Then we have second hand book shops, where enthusiasts can rent or buy second hand books. In modern times illegal copies of books are also affecting book sales. In this case, one person buys a book, scans it and posts the file on internet. Posting ebooks is a lot easier. All these factors lead to an erroneous estimate about the relation between book sales and reading culture.
Next comes the doubt about the language in which such surveys are conducted. If the survey or its conclusion is based on a particular region or language, it would lead to erroneous conclusions. For example, I read newspapers in English, magazines and social essays in Marathi, literature in Bengali, thoughts and quotations in Gujarati and so on. In this way, people are not bound to their own culture anymore. Cross-culture interactions have opened new doors. If people do not like books in their own language, they would turn to English or other languages that they are familiar with. Definitely they do read books, but not in the language in which the survey was conducted.
There is another more basic question — are books the only source of reading? Book reading might have declined in recent times; however, it is doubtful that the reading habit has also been affected in the same way. People do read newspapers, magazines, blogs and so on. Whenever you require information on any topic — from Einstein’s theory of relativity to Ashoka’s Kalinga war — you search the internet instead of going to a library. Definitely, internet has redefined the reading culture. The question here is not about the quality or reliability of the content. The question is simply whether people are reading or not. It must be remembered that books were not the first or the only source of gathering knowledge and information. Before the advent of books, knowledge used to be passed on to the next generation by the spoken word. So, are people reading books? May be yes, but less. Are they reading at all? Yes, sure. Are they receiving information? Definitely yes. Now we turn to the issue of book reading.
Here the first question is — why should youth read books at all? These days, students are far more career conscious, and do dream of a good life. There is indeed tough competition in the job market and students are well aware of that. In such a scenario, do you really consider that a student should be reading romantic novels while all other classmates and rivals are preparing for competitive exams and sharpening their skills for the job market?
Whenever there is a discussion about reading culture, the first and the easiest target is technology. But is technology really to be blamed? In my opinion, technology has opened new doors and in fact encouraged the reading culture. It has made the life of book lovers much easier. For example, today I can order and buy Bengali and Marathi books online, and read Gujarati magazines and Russian literature on the internet. My own reading has increased several fold ever since I bought my Kindle, which implies that I can very easily carry (otherwise fat and bulky) volumes of Tolstoy and Sri Aurobindo in my bag wherever I go. Technology cannot encourage you to develop reading habit, but it would certainly help you in every possible way if you are already in the habit of reading. ‘Oh! I want to read, but cannot find books‘ can no longer be an excuse for not reading.
Next comes the genre and quality of books. Publishers are primarily concerned with profit, hence the content of a book may not matter much as long as it sells. However, for a reader the type and quality of a book surely must be the foremost consideration. What benefit does one get from reading pop novels? If pleasure and entertainment is the only objective of reading them, even then do these books explore new terrains and avenues? Would any reader give yet another reading to these books? Does one remember the story or sentences from these books even after say 5-10 years? I do not think so. Then what is the use of buying or reading such books? Usually I come across people boasting of their reading habits by enumerating the number of books they read in a year. On hearing the titles of the books, I always wonder what benefit could that reading bring. What difference does it make whether one has read those books or not? I strongly believe that the content and quality of books are far more important than the volume of reading that any person does. After all, reading demands investment of time, money and effort.
Finally, if people are no longer interested in reading books, then to a great extent writers and publishers are also responsible for this decline. It is highly improper to produce sub-standard books and expect the readers to read them — all that to improve the statistics of reading habit! No Sir, today the readers have better options for entertainment and also for acquiring knowledge, and they would not hesitate in exploring them. If publishers and writers want to engage readers, they have no other option other than to improve their quality. The baseline is simply not to take the reader for granted. Books are written for readers. It does not fit any writer and any publisher to insult and underestimate the readers. Never.
photo credit: april-mo 2016-06-21 reading a dictionary (91) via photopin (license)
As always, your writing contains a a pragmatic approach to describe the contemporary issues. As far as the book reading is concerned, I think modern modes of entertainment and information sharing tools such as Twitter and Facebook has a deleterious impact on reading habit. People are now happy to get information in 140 character and every day so much is happening around the world that no one can track the details of all the events. Say for example, I follow WSJ, The Economist, NYT, Gurdian, BBC on twitter. Everyday they publishes articles on several issues and the quantum is so big that I find unable to read all the content. So I am happy to read just the headlines. No doubt internet has plethora of the information, yet if the approach is not concerted, it drifts away the reader. Thank you for sharing.
Yes Abhay, in this way information is not synonymous with knowledge. I have noticed that browsing on social media is a very tiring experience and very little valuable information is obtained. As for Twitter, I remember having followed Suhasini Haider and few other journalists, but then the volume of content was so huge that I had to unfollow all of them. I use the conventional methods of receiving news, that too only headlines and editorials. Information overload is the biggest problem for us today, that too reliable and authentic one 😦
Exactly Sir! Information is not Knowledge. Well summarised.
Substandard books have more market today. That’s why publishers publish them, I guess. Then there’s the self-publishing industry which is thriving.
Yes Sir, that is a feedback loop. If readers refuse to buy or read these substandard books, it may bring some pressure on writers and publishers to produce good work. But I do not know if that is even possible.
Sorry, I missed the self-published books. Here the biggest harm is that the intermediate editing stage (i.e., the publisher) is absent. Thanks for mentioning it.
paper wali kitab ko hath me lekar padne ka jo majaa hai woh e book ya internet books me nhi , mai to aaj bhi hindi kahaniya or comics khareedta hu or padta hu …
हाँ रुपेश । लेकिन एक समय के बाद किताबों की संख्या इतनी अधिक हो जाती है कि उन्हें संभालना मुश्किल हो जाता है । मेरे साथ भी कुछ ऐसा ही है । मेरा घर अब एक सार्वजनिक पुस्तकालय जैसा दिखता है । इसलिए मेरे पास e-books के अलावा और कोई विकल्प नहीं है 😦
mai to ab bhi hindi kitabe padta hu comics , novels , paper pe padne ka majaa hi kuch or hai,woh bat ebook me nhi
Presence of TV has changed reading habit in a great way. Attention span is reducing, as a result kids cannot focus for long. Many want to watch cartoons and picture containing magazines, so that there is little involvement of thinking. Add to this absence of good public libraries in neighbourhood. Many people cannot afford to buy a book and read. All these together have contributed to poor reading habits.
I completely agree with you Sir. Watching TV does not put strain or demand on brain to the extent reading does. Presently smartphones and internet have also contributed to reducing attention span.
Even the existing public libraries are mostly empty and receive very few visitors/readers.
This is a very beautifully written article. Good perspective. Loved how you didn’t blame technology because I too agree that technology has in-fact, increased the reading culture. That said, I’m still a lover of plain ol’ physical books.
Your argument on there being more than books to read is very appropriate. There are websites, blogs and such are newer avenues of live thoughts and discussions so no one is bound to books anymore.
However, I disagree where you said that students should study for competitive exams because their peers are doing and don’t have time to read books or fiction. I feel that this is the thought-process that drives a lot of us to dissatisfaction. I am perfectly fine with preparing for exams and I don’t shun the system but I also believe and I’ve seen that more and more young people are now taking lives into their own hands and becoming more than the rats in the race we have seen around ourselves. I personally know so many people who are my age and love reading. I’d love to know your thoughts on this as well?
Again, beautiful post. Subscribed.
Thanks Deepansh! I do not see any disagreement here as we are talking about different segments of the same big picture. Please note that here the subject itself is negative, i.e., why people are not reading. Thus, here we have kept existing readers out of discussion, and considered the possible reasons (and their validity) with non-readers. The thought behind that paragraph is simply that if students do not read, then they need not be blamed as they have other priorities, pressure of academic/competitive exams, syllabus and so on. I would like to clarify that I had written those sentences with 10th to 12th students in mind. College students somehow manage to find time, provided they are interested.
What a detailed analysis. So many aspects to look at when it comes to an issue like reading habits of an entire generation.
And kudos to you that you are well versed in so many languages – Bengali Marathi Hindi Gujarati English. What is your mother tongue?
Thank you Sujatha 🙂
My mother tongue is Hindi. In addition to the languages that you mentioned, I also know German, Russian and French 🙂
This blog is everything I wish to say about reading. I am an avid reader but when kids and adults alike ask me how I manage to read, I always say I refrain from other modes of entertainment. Almost no TV or any iPads.
With new age technology, young children are indeed forgetting to read just use a mobile device to search the net. Since I work for a book retailing chain thus I know the drastic downfall.
Many people just browse, they do not want to read but instead glean the gist and spout that and sometimes, embellish that. Social media is great, I agree but for me, a book, in my library? Im happy!