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.