Saturday, March 19, 2005

The Death of the Bookshop

The first bookshop I have a conscious memory of is Ferozesons on the Mall in Lahore. I remember being taken there often as a five or six year old with a quota of one book to buy. I recall the smell of new books and the sound of the press working in the background. It took me ages to figure out that not all bookshops came with presses attached to them. Ferozesons started my rip roaring affair with bookshops- an affair that I have managed to conduct and sustain with considerably more success than some others.

The next bookstore recollection has its roots in Karachi. The Pak American and Greenwich bookstores on Elphinstone Street (sadly renamed since) and Thomas & Thomas were haunts to which I was inexorably drawn. My parents eventually decided I was old enough to select my own books and the quota system was abolished. Having read through most of the Classics by the age of 13 I decided to embark on an “adult” reading career. This led to me a great deal of literature I, perhaps, should not have read so early on. I am still convinced that I was the only precocious 14 year old in Karachi to have consumed Gore Vidal’s transsexual fantasy “Myra Breckenridge” with a lascivious passion. As if all this was't enough, my siblings and I were members of the British Council library at Pakistan Chowk and the USIS library in the (now deserted) American Consulate.

Since then I have encountered numerous bookshops – Foyles and Dillons in London, Heffers in Cambridge, Blackstones in Oxford, Barnes and Nobles all over American, Kinokuniya in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Borders in Manila and innumerable others. When my young (then younger) friend M was going to college in DC many years ago, I couldn’t recall the name of any bars or clubs. I could remember the name of the nicest bookstore/café in town. He sent me a postcard to let me know that he’d located Kramerbooks and was working there.

Many years later I am amazed that Karachi – a city of 15 million people- does not have a single decent bookshop. My friends confess to buying books in malls and supermarkets. Some resort to Amazon or foreign trips. Islamabad fares a little better. A two floor bookstore has recently opened here and it is packed most evenings. There are also several second hand bookshops with an eclectic selection of titles. When I am at a Pakistani airport I am amazed to discover that I am often the only one among hundreds of people reading a book while waiting for a flight to be called. A few read newspapers. Most others just stare vacuously into the middle distance.

So what went wrong ? People just stopped reading books. And because of that people just stopped selling books. A quick look at web pages of the Orkut or Friendster variety shows that most Pakistanis either don’t have a favourite book or else there is a (proud) declaration that they don’t read. This is confirmed by visits to houses where the only book for miles around is a telephone directory. Clearly, there is an entire generation out there which has no intention of reading. I concede that books are expensive and are not within the reach of most Pakistanis. Ok. Point taken. But what about people who can afford to smoke Dunhills and still don’t read ?

I admit that these are all elitist arguments. They do not, for example, take into account reading habits in Urdu which may (hopefully) exceed English readership. All the major papers have literary reviews and “books” sections so I must assume that somebody reads. What disturbs me is that there are no visible signs (bookstores, libraries, readers) of a reading society. I desperately hope that anyone reading this trashes my views, shakes me out of my complacency and tells me that I’m totally wrong. I wait eagerly.


Blogger ضیا said...

I'm with you on the dearth of bookstores in Karachi, but not so much on reading habits in general. Two observations: the used books section at Itwar Bazaar is always packed, as used to be the book fair at Frere Hall (before the Americans sent it away for good). There used to be an annual 3-day book festival in Hyderi (North Nazimabad) but I haven't been there in years.

Recently, there's been a bookstore revival of sorts (elitist, mini-revival, but better than nothing). The fancy Clifton malls have half-decent bookstores, and Liberty Books also has a place by BBQ Tonite. There's Say Publishing near Khadda market, who doesn't have much inventory, but can get you pretty much anything within a week. Oh and they have a nice stock of Urdu titles too.

I suppose that despite my rambling, I just proved your point anyway. If all I can come up with is a few places for 15 million people, then things must be pretty bad. So let me move on to the next level of elitist argument... :)

Barnes & Noble (or Borders or any of these megastores) may have every title currently in print. But most of their business is in self-help titles or the latest Tom Clancy or whatever Oprah recommends (no statistics, just stereotyping). People in the US read - a lot. But is reading Grisham or chick-lit really any more enlightening than watching TV and not reading at all? I don't know.

Final point. I know that "my entire generation" doesn't read. Fine. But my father's generation had this insanely irrational respect for books, where a man's worth was measured by the size of his bookshelf. But there was never any emphasis on what you read. So, for example, I have an uncle with shelves upon shelves of Sidney Sheldon or Harold Robbins (or whatever these pervey men of my father's generation read for kicks) paperbacks. He's the indisputable family intellectual because *gasp* look at the sheer number of books he has!

But hey no complaints. My local B&N has a full stock of Batman comics. So I'm all set...

9:54 pm  
Blogger Uber Homme said...

Thank you for somewhat restoring my faith! I haven't lived in Karachi for eons ....frere hall had cookery reprints and the like when i went there once. Still it was good to see people looking at books generically. Liberty is following upon the Barnes syndrome-lots of glossy paperbacks, but with some surprisingly good stuff thrown in. OUP needs to be shot - their bookshop is a closet in a mall.

As to what people read - I deliberately chose not to venture there. Yes, the height of reading tastes here is The Da Vinci Code or the latest Grisham (or that Coelho man). But I thought it made sense to get people to read first and then bicker about what they read (or do not read) later on.

As for comics ...hmmm there's a whole other blog lurking in there :)

11:37 am  
Blogger Jalal said...

Actually things are looking up again. I have seen a lot (compared to before) of bookstores open up. Some on them have very good collections and they are usually packed.

I also actually saw an Urdu book in a store in Defence. When I commented on that to a friend the owner heard me and then stealthily hid it. So, I am assuming that someone is reading that too.

But, all in all, things are getting better. I can say this because now I can actually find good books at times.

11:08 pm  
Blogger Sin said...

Uber, please don't attack comic books, or it may ruin our glorious friendship. And if you insist, I'm going to bring a stack of them with me and force you read the good ones instead of watching HR prance about on-screen amidst the mountains of Switzerland, or whatever the latest hot place to film Bollywood movies is.

Liberty's not doing badly books-wise these days, actually. Part of that may be my showing up with a scowl and demanding "unpopular" books for reviews, but they've started making an effort to broaden their horizons somewhat.

What we really need though, is a massive lending library. The only problem is, who'd use it, besides about 40-odd people?

1:28 am  
Blogger Uber Homme said...

Sin: That was not an anti comic thing ...just the fact that comics deserve a whole separate space to themselves. !

12:53 pm  

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