Deccan Herald, Sunday, June 29, 2003

The book still rules 
Harry Potter notwithstanding, it’s been a parade of pretenders: 
the television, the Net, cineplexes, video games. Has this blitzkrieg
killed the love of books in us? Sheila Kumar does a reconnoitre of the
 situation and brings in a clear verdict

Is India reading? What a no-brainer question, right? 
Of course India is reading: it wants to know just what
 Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort are up to in Rowling’s 
fifth-in-the-series book, ‘Harry Potter and the Order of
 the Phoenix’ which has already sold a million copies
 worldwide. Point is, many of those men/women/children
 clutching the heavy tome to their chests have been 
drawn to the book only because of all the hype. 
Most will read it, but many will buy it to stack 
alongside the other four Potternamas.

So. What lies beyond books on a child wizard?

 Is India really reading much, when all day 
Net surfing has become affordable? When DJ 
Whatsisname is playing house music at the pub
 on a balmy evening. When you have to catch
 the latest Harry Potter (here we go again!) saga
 at the theatre or the latest episode of ‘The West
 Wing’ on TV. Not when your days are so stretched
 you can barely fit all your activities into 24 
hours. And certainly not when books have 
become so prohibitively expensive.

Er… not so fast, dear reader. Truth to tell, the 

book still rules. That’s what a cross-section
 of people across the country, book publishers/
book sellers/readers all say, with fervour, with
 emphasis, with quiet conviction.

There are many who believe that a good lending 

library is manna for the readers. Denizens of 
Bangalore, Ernakulam, Thiruvananthapuram, 
Kozhikode, Kolkata and Chennai certainly put 
the Eloor Lending Library (all these cities have
 a branch) right at the top of the list. Unlike 
most garage libraries, the Eloor Libraries stock 
as much soul food for the serious reader as for
 the magazine-philes and Mills & Boon addicts. 
The  man behind the chain of libraries is a retired
 passport officer with an abiding passion for
 books (of course) named Luiz John. This is Mr John
 on the topic under discussion: “Eloor has not been
 experiencing any dearth of readers. The volume 
of our lending doesn’t warrant any such statement.”

Then again, the love of reading has never been quite 

the norm for the general public, states Mr. John, 
reminiscing about the time when his father used to
 deposit him in front of the soda maker’s shop in the
 village; the soda maker doubled as the local 
librarian. “As a small boy I used to wait respectfully 
until the soda maker uncle would detach himself from 
the soda machine and take me to the panchayat library
 room two shops away. Then as now, books were a 
visceral need in me.”

Ultimately, says Luiz John, book buffs have a way 

of hanging out together, perpetually aggravating each
 other's craving for books. “Do you know one reason 
why books will endure”, he asks, then answers the 
question: “It is a habit that gets handed down, 
generation to generation. A genuine reader infects
 at least two people in his lifetime. The pure enjoyment
 that one gets out of a good book is so great, one must
 talk about it to somebody.”

The articulate Vidya Virkar, daughter of the man who started

 the legendary Strand bookstore in Mumbai, T.N. Shanbhag,
 has been helming the Bangalore branch of Strand for eight
 “giddy, amazing and rewarding” years now. Ask her if people
 are still reading and she says, “Oh, very much so and its 
on the rise.” Her take on a rising readership despite other
 in-one’s-face distractions, is an interesting one: “It’s because
 the dotcom bubble burst.

That crash has directly impacted readership profiles. When 
the euphoria vaporized, people had this urge to get back to 
basics, to get their fundamental precepts right…and what better
 way to do it than to return to the world of books?”

Ask Vidya what people are reading and she says, “The whole spectrum

 of books. It’s really a case of different strokes for different folks.” 
She rues the fact that translations of regional writings aren’t given 
enough publicity, which is why the wonderful works of many an 
author in Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Kerala or Bengal languish 
largely unknown and unread.

M. Vijayalakshmi, the librarian at Sahitya Akademi, Delhi

 says, “There are no reliable statistics but going by the
 general response all over India to book fairs, I’d say 
yes, there is an uptrend in reading. Whether it gets 
translated into book sales I don’t know but the
 reading habit has not waned. What are people reading?
 Well, at all book fairs, the most crowded stalls are 
those that sell self-development, self-empowerment 
or self-improvement books.”

Shalini Rose, Manager at the Bookworm shop in Delhi begs 

to differ. She feels the market for books has gone down, 
sales have gone down, resulting in some bookstores in 
the Capital shutting down. She says that, by and large,
 the bulk of people who buy from Bookworm are foreigners,
 and the war and SARS mean less tourists. Those who
 read, says Shalini, pick up tomes on literary criticism, 
management books, religion, areas the Bookworm 
specializes in.

K.K.S. Murthy of Bangalore’s Select Bookshop is, of course,

a veteran in the book world and any conversation with 
him must needs take one into a fascinating labyrinth of 
tomes. Are people reading? “More and more,” asserts 
Mr. Murthy. “There are takers for just about every
 type of serious books: philosophy, literature, the
 classics. I have had youngsters in recently, asking 
for sets of William Shakespeare as well as Shopenhauer.”

Mr. Murthy finds this sharp spurt in readers a somewhat 

recent phenomenon, and indirectly attributes it to the 
influx of people from outside states, regions where 
the love of the printed word has been part of the 
local culture. The Select Bookshop has, in the last 
58 years of its existence, acquired a steady clientele,
 one who isn’t easily lured away by the power of 
the mouse or the idiot box. In fact, Mr. Murthy has
 a ‘Wanted’ list he carries with him to all the book 
exhibitions and fairs he attends, scouting out rare
 books and editions for Select customers back in Bangalore.

“Yes, books are expensive,” says Mr. Murthy. “However,

 when hardbacks at sold to us booksellers at a later date,
 at discounted prices which some of us (me certainly) 
further mark down, then buying good books becomes 
affordable. I earnestly wish the big publishers would 
routinely sell the leftover stocks of hardbacks to us 
rather than return them to source. This way, almost
 every reader would be able to buy books.”

Is books selling lucrative, you ask and he smiles. 

“Well, I have heard my father (the redoubtable 
Mr. Rao, founder of Select in 1945) being asked 
how he can possibly see to the needs of his family,
 running a small bookstore where at any given time 
one would find just 2-3 people browsing around. 
And he’d say that he certainly wasn’t running Select
 to pass time or as a hobby. The sales from books
 at Select fed, clothed, educated his family, all the 
while keeping us in close contact with what we
 love so much, the books.”

Ms Veena Marthandam of Danai Bookstore, Khar, Mumbai 

reports that book sales have more or less hit a plateau
 for the past few years, and that people are reading 
a lot of New Age books, spiritual and self- help books.

Gangarams, Bangalore, is now more than a bookstore, 

what with sections dealing with stationery, cards, 
gifts, etc. This has been a natural progression says N 
Gangaram, and not necessarily due to a dip in the sale
 of books. His son, Prakash Gangaram elaborates,
 “Let’s face it, a complete set of the Encyclopedia 
Britannica is beyond the reach of most people. 
The same on CD format isn’t. So, while stocking 
the CDs, we are just helping to widen the habit of 
acquiring knowledge.” Both the Gangarams are 
vehement that books sales aren’t in any state 
of decline. “There is such a wide variety of 
books being published and each generation 
churns out more and more book lovers,” 
opines the elder Gangaram.

Mr. T .S Shanbhag’s Premier Bookshop has willy-nilly 

become an institution in Bangalore. You walk 
into the store where books are piled precariously and
 yet within seconds of asking for some little- known 
tome, Mr Shanbhag has pulled it out for you. Book 
signings, book promos, author readings, all seem just
 that bit redundant at Premier. Asked if India is 
reading, the mild-mannered Shanbagh says tellingly,
 “Books sales have gone up. Good books will always
 sell and despite all other distractions, there will 
always be readers. If people can’t afford hardbacks,
 they wait for the books to come out in paperback 
and then buy them.”

N Obeid of Chennai’s Landmark Shop concedes that 

sometimes one has to lure would- be book buyers in, 
with displays of multi-media products. However, he 
too avers that books sales are going nowhere but 
up. “It’s been a gradual rise,” he says, “There are more
 writers and more books on just about every subject 
under the sun…and of course, there are more people
 reading.” And he for one, isn’t going to knock book 
readings, author signings, promos: “They help bring
 more readers into the fold.”

Mr Nazim Bharwani of Horizon Bookstore, Vile Parle,

 Mumbai says that book sales have gone up, 
especially of management books. It is a lucrative
 business, he reports happily.

T. N. Shanbhag, the man who is Strand, Mumbai,

 laughs at the notion that there could be a 
decline in reading and readers. Choosing his words
 with care, he says, “Without exception, inspite 
of all the doomsday-sayers, the reading habit 
remains, will remain, and will only improve. Most 
people have a thirst for knowledge that only 
the printed word can satisfy. Today, with 
purchasing power having gone up, they get 
to slake that thirst.”

In the 34 years of running Strand, Mr. Shanbhag 

has seen many a luminary come and go into his 
shop, and talks of how he’d staked all on instinct
 when, some decades ago, it came to stocking the
 translation of an unknown work called Dr Zhivago.
 The gamble paid off (as one suspects all such 
gambles of this man who knows books pay off) 
and soon Pandit Nehru was ordering copies to 
gift friends. Mr. Shanbhag is scathing about 
new trends in publishing and stocking. “The 
trade has been degraded with the flooding 
of mediocre books and bestsellers,” he rues.
 “Today books are a commodity and not a 
cultural product. The informed booksellers 
have gone into the woodwork, only traders
 run the show now.”

If Mr. Shanbhag the effortless raconteur, says he

 doesn’t ‘vibrate’ in quite the same way as 
other bookstore owners, well, his clientele is different
 too. This man deals with the classes, and doesn’t
 carp how few they are.

“Progress,” he states, “can be ascribed to the 1  per cent

of population, not the 99 percent of the masses.” His one
 per cent, then, are on the eternal learning curve and
 that’s just the way ‘Mr. Strand’ would have it. “No one
 reading these days?” he chuckles in disbelief.

This is what Ravi Shankar, writer and Deputy Editor at

 India Today says: “I don’t think dumbing down has 
affected any serious readers. It’s only because publishing
 has become such a prolific industry that there are 
more Georgette Heyers and Kusum Sawhneys on 
bookshop shelves. Donatella Versace may collect 17th
 century Chinese boiserie and live in a Milanese palazzo
 but her favorite author is Jackie Collins. There you go.”

Madhu Wal, Head of the English Department at The 

Lawrence School Lovedale in Ooty has this to say: 
“When I was in School in the Sixties, reading was 
perhaps the only recreation available to us, besides
 the occasional movie and the radio. Unfortunately,
 today reading is fast becoming a dying habit. 
Young children prefer spending time on the Internet.
 With cable network and film CD's being so readily
 available, they have little interest in reading good books.”

Renuka Chatterjee, Commissioning Editor at 

Roli Books, New Delhi, has her own take on 
reading and readers. “Writers and books have
 been getting much more attention from the 
media; writers are treated in much the same 
way as sports stars and film stars, in terms
 of media space. This has generated more 
interest from the public. Also, there is much
 more interest now in Indian fiction.”

While averring that people still read, Renuka says

 this has not made much of an impact on sales. 
“People talk more about the latest book but 
unfortunately, don't put their money where
 their mouth is, at least to the extent that 
publishers would like.” On the media blitz, 
she says, “I don't think TV/Net have really 
killed the reading habit to a significant extent.

People who like books, and want to read, will opt
 for a book instead of a TV programme, just 
as they did before. I wouldn't say there is a
 preference for lighter stuff, either: most Indian 
writers in English who have done really well, have 
written literary novels, not pulp, i.e. Vikram 
Seth, Arundhati Roy, Upmanyu Chatterjee, 
Vikram Chandra. The only Indian pulp fiction 
writer to date who has made it big is Shobhaa De.”

Asha Nehemiah, a writer of children’s books based

 in Vellore, says: “I think the Harry Potter phenomenon
 has got more kids back to books and reading.” However,
 she admits that where once curling up with a good
 book was the only alternative to boredom when the 
weather got too hot to play outdoors, today 
kids have a variety of choice.

“So, unless you offer them reading material that is
 more exciting than the other choices available, 
they're not going to read. I feel the love for 
reading has to be nurtured carefully in the 
generation of young readers today. Whereas
 twenty years ago, I knew hundreds of bookworms
 (both adults and children) whose first choice of
 entertainment would be reading, today I know
 maybe five! I think children have to be 
systematically introduced to good books and 
efforts have to be made by schools and 
parents to provide them with a rich and varied reading fare.“

Jayanth Kodkani, Bangalore- based journalist 

and committed reader says succinctly, “Just 
like the information glut hasn't prevented the 
serious and discerning reader from finding 
what he likes to read, books find their fans. 
It’s just that the choice is varied now.”

Kodkani laments the demise of the eclectic 

reader. “The voracious reader, whose eclectism
 arose from his attitudes/scholarship/world view,
 appears to be vanishing. He (this vanishing man)
 read books on French wine, World War II history,
 avant garde poetry. Very few people read 
books on many subjects and in many genres
 now…there's just no time!”

So. Is India reading? Let me put it this way: 

the part of India that comprises readers, is 
still reading. More than ever.

R K Murthi gives a few tips on how to catch them young
Reading, said Bacon, makes a ready man. Vidyadhanam sarvadhanad pradhnam, our rishis declared centuries ago.
It is rightly said, “A book shut is no better than a block of wood.” Only when a book is read that the vistas of the mind expand and thus lead to broad outlook and catholicity. Reading makes one more tolerant of differing views.
It is sad to note that reading habits are on the decline. The mounting influence of the electronic media has certainly eroded the appeal of books. Yet experts agree that the electronic media shall never replace books. For a book can be read at the pace of one’s choice. It can be put away and picked up again when one has time to resume reading. These are some of the advantages that books hold.
Is the electronic media to be blamed solely for drop in reading habits? That won’t be fair. There are other problems that dilute the appeal of books. The need therefore is to identify the trouble spots and take suitable action. I can readily define a few strategies that shall revive the reading habit.
1. The love for reading needs to be instilled at a very young age. If parents are book lovers and read at home while the children are around, the children naturally form a love for reading.
2. In rural areas and aalso in urban areas where large clusters of poor live, the strategy has to be different. Most of the parents are illiterate. So social activists should come forward to take books to this section of children. Efforts in this direction are already popular.
3. Every school must have a library. Organisations like the National Book Trust and the Children’s Book Trust produce excellent books that are priced very low. The books of these organizations could be the ideal means of building up a library in schools in slum areas and rural areas.
4. Mobile libraries and books shops play a major role in reviving book reading. NBT deserves congratulations for pioneering this movement.
5. A core of writers with the necessary skill to write for the target audience and make the topic lively and interesting needs to be developed.
The above framework projects a broad strategy for fighting the fall in reading habits.
(The Indian Society of Authors held a two-day seminar at Indore to delve into the above topic. Several eminent intellectuals and eminent writers, including this writer participated in the event.)

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