Reading is a passion that needs to be fostered from an early age.
It’s been over a decade now since my father entered the field of publishing. As a child, I saw him toiling but with a permanent smile on his face and the little brightness of the sun. My day would begin with my father reading Gitanjali and end with the fantastic stories he would create for me. My favorite bedtime story was undoubtedly the one with a band of benevolent rakshasa (demon) brothers who traversed land, sky and water to rescue their beloved mother.
I have not inherited a large amount of wealth or the ability to buy almost anything on earth. But I still feel very rich for I have a father who read to me.
I have grown up since then, but my love for stories hasn’t fallen by any measure. During the Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF) in 2015, when my father was on stage with a panel of luminaries, he told us a story.
It was about a poor fruit-seller. He would go from village to village trying to sell bananas, which he would carry in a basket on his head. On one very ordinary day, like today, he went out to work earlier than usual but sold nothing until noon. At 2pm, the sun was shining right over his head. The temperature had risen both inside and out. He was in desperate need of money as was his stomach for food.
He looked at the bananas and deliberated over whether he should eat one. He could either calm his cravings or sell one more and earn a little more. His penury compelled him to stay hungry as he sank against a tree nearby.
In no time, he dozed off. A carpenter saw the man in this dilemma on his way home for lunch. On his way back, he saw an old lady kicking the fruit-seller repeatedly in the face. The carpenter was surprised and yelled out to the old woman: “Don’t you have any empathy left in you, kicking the poor man like that?” She looked into his eyes and replied: “I am his soul. He denied us of nourishment, I will deny him sleep.”
Hunger for Stories
So, what do we understand from the story?
Like the effect of heat on the particles of matter, the flames of hunger do not allow the soul to be at peace. In many cases, a hungry stomach can be harmful to mankind as it is a reason for violence and crime. But hunger need not be bad every time. All of us would know that whenever we feel hungry, we are ready to gorge pretty much on any food in sight.
So, it is with the hunger for knowledge, hunger for stories, hunger for therapeutic words that stirs in the soul a desire to read. Without wasting any more time, we need to create an ecosystem that craves to read.
Today, houses have swanky home theaters and heated swimming pools but may not have a single book. For many of us, our daily reading habit revolves around Facebook updates, tweets or the instructions on packaging. We frequent bars, clubs, restaurants and theaters much more often than picking up a book to read in the same time span. Reading habits are dying.
Given the novelty of innovations and the advent of gadgets, newer habits have developed and so have several complications. From imagination deficit to knowledge-based entrenchment, a new genre of ex-readers has sprung up.
The book burning campaign by the Nazis marked a black patch in the history of our world. But there is a crime worse than that: not reading at all. Shakespeare called such folly and ignorance the common curse of mankind.
But there are always two sides of a coin. There is another segment of society that lives for books, articles and good stories. Psychologically, humans have a negative bias. We tend to perceive and remember bad things better than the good ones. The advent of technology, which we despise simultaneously, has enabled people to talk, discuss and even debate any topic under the sun. Sales statistics in India show that not only have the number of readers grown in size, but the time spent on reading per person has also gone up.
Now, contrary to the generation of people who have moved away from reading, books and even the much-despised electronic media have created two new genres of readers. As the primary non-readers become neo-readers, another class of reader, between the academics and the intellectuals, comes to light. They are the uber-intellectuals. These genres are born purely out of their love for reading and their desire for knowledge.
Ecosystems for Reading
Neil Gaiman sums it up very well for all of us: “A book is a dream that you hold in your hands.” This industry, unlike any other, is driven by inimitable passion for books. Be it the editors or the designers, the photographers or the printers, they run on their love for their art and the end product. Authors are to be credited for a good book. And that is why most good authors do not make the best of marketers.
They are artists after all, masters of their own art. Their art is different from any didactic, utilitarian or commercial function. And that is where the other stakeholders of a book come into the picture, each with his or her own expertise. In fact, that is how this industry works. So are the designers and the illustrators. We say, “Never judge a book by its cover.” But book covers are crucial: They are the face of a book. A well-designed cover, including the front, back and spine, makes a book irresistible to its buyer.
In short, the bookmakers not only focus on the content, but also the presentation and the display of books.
The stacks of cans near the counters attract more attention than the display shelves. Visual merchandising is the “it” word in retail marketing to maximize reach and, consequently, sales. The same principle applies to books. The more books you see around, the more inclined you are to pick one up. Be it at book fairs, book cafes, book trucks or bookstores, they all play an important role in creating an ecosystem for reading.
And reading is like an addiction; it is very difficult to completely give up. You just keep coming back to it.
But no matter how innovative or digitized books become, unless the ecosystem is restored, reading will continue to be a passionless activity. Parents, grandparents and teachers play the most important part in the cultivation of reading as a habit. A sapling planted in the mind of a child only continues to grow.
I remember a friend telling me how she read The Lord of the Rings to a group of young students as an experiment. As she shut the book, marking the end of a session, she asked them: “What do you think is going to happen next? Do you think Mr. Baggins will go for the journey of his life?”
Even though they had their own versions, they couldn’t wait for the next session the following week. They had somehow managed to get ahold of a few copies of the book and feverishly gulped down every word in it.
According to me, that wouldn’t still be enough if we stop reading given the excuse of myriad responsibilities and options of entertainment in adulthood. It is sad but true—having given several interviews—that none but the ones in publishing have questioned me on my favorite book or the last book I read. Conversations, discussions and debates of books and other reading material are sadly close to nothing.
Just the other day, I asked my father: “Why did you get into publishing? It is not as lucrative as other businesses.”
With the same smile on his face, he said: “If money is gold, sleep is platinum.”
It didn’t make any sense to me. But he’d already noticed my quizzical expression and simply added: “Since my childhood I loved reading, but due to the harsh realities of life I never got enough opportunity or time. Now, I am doing what I had always wanted to: read and make the world read. It is this satisfaction which lets me sleep at night.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.