April 23 marks World Book and Copyright Day. But in a country where just 62% of people bought at least one book last year, this must be a little known fact. When compared to 87% and 82% in Turkey and Russia respectively, the numbers gathered for Pakistan were unsurprisingly low.
A cause-and-effect phenomenon can be traced when book-reading trends in Pakistan come into question:
Firstly, religious extremism propagated by vested interests of a small group has played havoc with book-reading habit. The unacceptability of dissenting views has created a vacuum, unfilled by superficially researched and fictitious books. 57% of the books read are fiction while scientific literature and textbooks account for only 26%.
Secondly, the low quality of education imparted to pupils in most private schools that have sprung up in every nook and corner (I am not even vaguely referring to public schools) renders reading a difficult task for them: The last Annual Status of Education Report of 2016 revealed that only 52% of children in Grade 5 could read a story of Grade 2 level in a local language. Tests for English reading skills for students of Grade 5 showed worse results. Only 46% could read sentences in English designed for Grade 2.
Thirdly, as Professor Khadim Hussein points out, the limited distribution of books by the publishers too is a reason why most people in the country remain unaware of the recent works and new writers. And as a survey finds out, the major reason for book purchases in Pakistan is friends’ recommendations (49%), it perfectly makes sense that a small target market for the publishers ends up limiting access to books in general.
Fourthly, books are an expensive item; almost a luxury for Pakistanis. According to Sana Shahid, a manager at Paramount Books, the price of books is on the rise and selling books, whether for adults or children, is a mighty challenge. Hence, book-reading, as a hobby, sees less credibility as compared to watching movies or playing games on the cell phones which, are more accessible because they can be downloaded for almost free.
Finally, and perhaps as a collective result of all the above-mentioned factors, library-culture in Pakistan is declining at an alarming rate: Only 15% people today borrow books from libraries or actually visit them. Consequently, libraries are disappearing when just about 20 years ago, they were an important part of a growing child’s life.
But why book-reading matters? Why the factors mentioned above are alarming for Pakistan? For one, as Doren indicates in his book How to read a book: “To pass from understanding less to understanding more by our own intellectual effort in reading is something like pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. It certainly feels that way. It is a major exertion.” And hence, it helps to develop cognitive skills, forcing creative juices to be effective.
Secondly, it widens horizons; increasing tolerance for conflicting views. This is most important given how divided our society is along religious and cultural lines, and how the room for dissent is decreasing in the world at large. Writers and poets at a recent study circle organized by Bacha Khan Trust Educational Foundation argued that book reading was a must for a civilized society.
Thirdly, and most importantly, reading is the crux of our religious teachings – the first word of revelation was iqra meaning, read! In short, book-reading holds key to success for the country on individual and collective levels. It is high time that parents, publishers, and book retailers came up with strategies to inculcate reading habit among children.
[Daily Times 23 April, 2019]