Wednesday, 23 September 2015

THE FADING ART OF READING




I’m an endangered species – a guy who reads books. Not a casual reader who picks up the occasional book but someone who always has a book or two going. I’ve been one since I was a kid and my parents were responsible. I saw them read newspapers, magazines, novels and books in English, Hindi and Bangla. Books were the only birthday gifts I ever received from them, and if grandparents ever lovingly gifted money, that too was converted into books as a religious routine. I grew up with the idea that reading is a way of life. My sons however are very different. While I learned to read everything from poetry to pornography and developed a database in my cerebral circuits from where I can recall what I need to, or at least I know which book will give me the required information, my sons simply google the key words and get the information from the computer! The information derived from the television, the National Geographic and the Discovery Channel programmes constitute their fragile database and google simply adds meat to their skeletal knowledge. But what is worst is that they are perfectly happy about it! Who has the time to read books aimlessly, is what they ask. Their thirst for information is limitless but their attention span is so less that it poses a serious challenge to a goldfish! Just because a new medium arrives doesn’t mean an old medium dies out. I hope and pray that the two merge and their offspring i.e. e-books have a bright future. Kindle is getting more and more popular and I hope the younger generation rediscovers the wonders of the printed pages.

W. Somerset Maugham said, “To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all miseries of life.” But today, in an age when browsing the net, playing with funky handsets and passing non-stop SMS seem to be the order of the day, the reading habit is the worst sufferer. The internet boom, interactive medium of images, TV and the silver screen is filling the minds of the modern youth and taking majority of their free time.  Social media is the new fad with What’s App, Instagram and Orkut having almost replaced the television, almost the same way the latter had replaced the books. While technology is taking control steadily over individual lives, the reading habit is fast vanishing into thin air. The city libraries are either bearing a deserted look or are fast disappearing and I still miss the British Council Library of my younger days. Many homes today still have libraries but those books are just part of the homes décor. "Books are man's best friends"- the old saying is losing its relevance these days as in the age of technology and “Smart phones are now man’s best friend”!

My generation was spell bound by Perry Mason stories, mesmerized by Arthur Hailey, thrilled by James Hadley Chase, inspired by Ayn Rand, and shown the marvels of the English language by P.G. Woodhouse!  Will the smart phone do all this for the present generation?  The girls were crazy about were crazy about Mills 'n' Boons love stories. Are today’s school girls still reading them? Yes, despite all odds we have had bestsellers like Harry Potter, Five Point Someone and Two States and I salute their authors for beating the odds. Hindi literature has suffered even more. We read Munshi Premchand, Bhagwati Charan Verma, Gulshan Nanda, Colonel Ranjeet…..across the spectrum from the sublime to the ridiculous, but are there name even remotely familiar to the youth today?

Reading is an essential tool for lifelong learning. Reading adds quality to life and provides access to culture and heritage. It empowers and emancipates citizens and brings people together and is a priceless instrument for everyone. It is one of the most important activities of life through which we enter into the life and experiences of others and extend our knowledge, scope of experience and enjoyment. It has critical role to play in the overall development of an individual and the nation at large. At a time when a wide range of books is available in bookstores and children and teenagers have to choose from comics to fairy tales and adventure books, it is sad to see that with the children remaining glued to the Cartoon Network on TV and internet, the reading habit is on the wane right from childhood. Gone are the days when they used to rush to their library to get their favorite books of adventure and fairy tales. They used to devour books like the Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe. Their heroes were Robin Hood and Tom Sawyer. In more recent years books written by Enid Blyton had caught their fancy. Recently there was a lot of hype on J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter series but I wonder how many children actually read the novels from cover to cover. Perhaps, there were more viewers of the films than readers of the books.

It was way back in 1967 Anant Pai understood this problem of a declining reading habit. He was convinced that books on Indian cultural heritage have to be made more colourful and interesting to make them acceptable to the children. He then started Ama Chitra Katha, a series of comic books depicting the life and time of the heroes and heroines of yesteryears. With more than 400 titles  that retell stories from the great Indian epics, mythology, history, folklore, and fables this was an extremely popular effort.  Amar Chitra Katha has evolved over times. It has forayed into the digital world by launching its official digital store app across platforms — Windows 8, iOS and Android. Dubbed as ACK Comics, the store offers more than 300 titles. The colourful photography and the lively animation makes the reading experience more interesting.

Actually, the time we spent on reading books has been snatched by the idiot box, which in turn is losing out to the social media. I am not against these powerful mediums of communication but I am vexed to see how a very healthful food has been replaced by fast food and junk food! What is worse is Indian parents think that reading books will divert the attention of their children from their serious tasks and goals of achieving high marks in examinations. So much for parenthood! Reading stories about Subhash Bose, Khudiram, Bhagat Singh, Rani Lakshmi Bai and Chandra Shekhar Azad to the impressionable young minds is the duty of every parent, and if they do not want to pick up an old fashioned book let them do so with an e-book!

Although people are not reading books as they used to, their thirst for information seems to be limitless. The habit of reading will come back again after sometime. “Media is not a zero sum game,” says Paul Saffo, a director of the Institute For Future in Menlo Park, California, “Just because a new medium arrives doesn’t mean an old medium dies out.” He hopes, as I do, for a resurrection of the wonderful habit of reading books!