Why are we reading less?

“Adults are not reading books.”

“Children are not reading books.”

These 2 lines one comes across frequently. These are, on most occasions, followed with gyan encouraging one to read. To read more. Most of this gyan also lays the blame – for fall in reading – entirely or almost entirely on technology. In other words, televisions and mobile phones are the reason for people going away from books and reading. Roald Dahl too has famously written,

So please, oh please, we beg, we pray, go throw your TV set away, and in its place you can install a lovely bookshelf on the wall.

Reading has surely come down – irrespective of age. There is little to debate on this. We now see lesser people with books – at their homes or elsewhere, book-stores and magazine-stalls are closing one by one, increasingly books are less and less part of our conversations and so on.

However, let us explore the topic further and give it the space it warrants. For this we need to move away from the technology debate which can potentially reduce this complex discussion to a binary.

We also need to be careful to refrain from romanticizing the past. Like someone wiser once said – we have a tendency to look at our past as perfect, present as imperfect and future as tense. During a panel discussion on yoga, I was a spectator to, in response to the question of why yoga was not popular in India today a member had begun his response with “it is not as if previously everyone in India got up and did yoga in the morning”. We can replace ‘doing yoga’ with ‘reading books’.

Where do we stand today?

Today, apparently, we publish more books than we have previously done and also have more literate people than ever before. In other words, we are surrounded by more books, and people who can read these books, than anytime during the past.

To bring in numbers “Almost 250 books are produced each day, in India”, says Meghna Pant, author of ‘How to get published in India’. Another article pegs the number of publishers in India at more than 9,000. William Dalrymple has been quoted stating, “There are nearly 300 literature festivals across South Asia from Lahore to Bhutan”.

Yet we lament that people are not reading books. A dichotomy if there was one.

This is not a revelation of any sorts. The scenario has been discussed for a while now. Alaka M Basu in a recent article lamented that almost none of her co passengers in flights, most of them males in 30’s and 40’s, read. She hoped that “train travelers still pass some of their time with heads dug in a book”. My travels in trains tell me the situation in trains is not very different today. Whereas, not many years ago it was common to read (and borrow) magazines and newspapers during rail journeys. But why expect those in trains to read in the first place – especially when there is little reading happening elsewhere?

Jerry Pinto, in an article where he talked about increasing number of literature festivals in the country, wrote

What is more troubling is that no one seems to be reading. After all these years of hosting a huge literary festival, there is not a single bookshop worth the name in Jaipur
Commenting on JLF Aditya Mani Jha wrote 
even 5 to 6 years ago it was common to see readers sprinkled throughout the venue . . however now, readers – real readers – have left JLF and gone

Manu Joseph, puts it like few others can,

One of the great secrets of our age is that most educated people in the world do not wish to read or cannot read well

Where do children stand amidst all this?

Let us discuss parents and teachers to begin with. They still decide a lot on behalf of children – including their books.

Many parents appear to be caught up with daily grind of their lives. On some days, they feel the need for their children to read, or read more. Many teachers I have met in recent times do not read or read little. They are busy meeting the rules of the schools and demands of the parents. Some of them are, well, busy with being busy. One common    feature at homes and schools (many of them) is that books (and as a corollary reading) are low on priority – looked down as expense that can be avoided rather than an investment in the next generation! I am reminded of Albert Einstein who had said,

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.

Some of my friends are now also parents to wonderful children. In the years that we grew together books (and their discussions) were part of our lives; today they are happy to skip the topic altogether. They appear not to have the time or willingness to respond to questions like – “Will your child read books if you read books?

That said, the last few years – in India – have seen positive developments on this front. We now have books that treat children as smart and intelligent individual beings, books that are located within Indian context, books that are in Indian languages, books that boast of captivating illustrations, books by doyens of literature who love children and more. These are complimented by the setting up of book rooms – including in schools attended by children from the financially underprivileged – places where reading is encouraged as a fun activity. The idea is for children to be happy amidst books, to love books, to read. And the children are responding positively.

Small and sure initial steps in the correct direction.

Do we have an idea of why we stay away from books?

We are not sure. We can only hypothecate.

Increasingly our lives are getting narrow and restricted. Right from the school days we interact – more and more – with people who are similar to us financially, socially, culturally and otherwise. People whose worlds are similar to ours. Books bring to our lives worlds other those we inhabit and also imaginary worlds. As Neil Gaimon wrote, “You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed”.

Today, the elite are being critiqued and questioned like they have not been for a long time. Many of their practices are being ridiculed. Reading is looked up – by many – as an elitist act. Keerthik Sasidharan wrote of this thus, “But for all these claims of ennobling, in our age of great distractions, the act of reading, the possession of books is still often seen as the indulgences of those with disposable incomes”.

Increasingly we are less fond of depth and silences. We react to them like we do to darkness. We are keen to stay away from conversations bearing depth. Silences too appear to be vanishing from our lives. Today many of us are not comfortable being alone. Books bring us nearer to both – depth and silences.

Today we are more keen to give gyan than to listen, understand or analyze. We are also less keen to allow space for questions and doubts. Majority of our conferences and seminars are testimony to this. Books not only make us aware to the range of possibilities – they also hold the potential to confuse us.

The world is increasingly moving towards the ‘either you are with us or against us’ mode, read getting polarized. Books (majority of them) talk about the world that lies between the poles, of multiple truths, of the possibility to agree to disagree. They covey that just because one is correct the other is not necessarily wrong.

Books, perhaps, do not fit into our scheme of things today!

 

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Nimesh Ved Written by:

Nimesh loves long walks and cycle rides. He blogs at http://nimesh-ved.blogspot.com/ and can be contacted at nimesh.explore@gmail.com

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