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     Volume 7 Issue 32 | August 8, 2008 |

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Of book Launches and Celebrity Writers

Syed Badrul Ahsan

Do you recall a time when books were published and used to be sold at the many bookstores all over the city? Of course, they are still published and yet sold everywhere. But there is a difference between then and now. Then, it was a simple matter of one's writing or compiling a book and leaving distributors and bookstore owners to dispose of them. Today it is all a matter of gross publicity, with a whole country being informed that a book has been written and that it will go through what is haughtily called a launch. That is pretty queer, for back in our boyhood we heard of the many launches that Soviet and American spacecraft were put through. In our own clime, many were the occasions when we went visiting, under the strict supervision of our parents, our grandparents through travelling long river routes on vessels we called, and still call, launches.

But now we have these book launches, which are occasionally a chance for a writer to invite a few famous men and women in town to a small party. These individuals, who have already been given copies of the book to read before they take centre stage at the launch, are generally unwilling to do anything other than shower praises on the writer even if his work is one that should simply be flung out of the window or hurled to the floor. A book launch is, in a number of ways, a straitjacket. It is so because it persuades the discussants on the programme as also the audience to do nothing but praise the towering wisdom of the writer even though his book may be full of inanities. You see all the television cameras focusing everywhere, for the writer and his publicists have left no stone unturned to give the event a strong celebrity whiff. As the speakers rise, one after another, to enlighten you on the sheer profundity of the work, you are left wondering what the reviews at the newspapers will have to say, or whether they will have anything left to say after all those appreciative comments at the launch. And then comes the climactic moment: a photo-op for the writer, when he and his guests on the raised platform stand, each holding a copy of the book for the photographers to take shots of for their newspapers and television channels.

It is often an inexplicable thing, this small matter of the chief guest and other guests at a book launch standing there, looking rather helpless, with those books in their hands like so many schoolboys. Whoever invented the idea of a book launch probably did not quite realise the enormity of embarrassment it would cause, both in those book-holding individuals and discerning readers. And then there is the small matter of conceit. How do a few individuals to whom the book has been handed out as part of the launch speak for nearly everyone else, meaning all those prospective readers across the country, as they appreciate the work? And why must the writer, assuming that he considers writing to be a serious profession where comprehensive dedication and utmost humility are the requirement, stoop to the idea of becoming an instant celebrity before all those media people?

Books are a serious matter. You read them if they cater to your tastes; and you leave them aside if they do not hold any appeal for you. There are books that bristle with banalities; and then there are the tomes you simply cannot put down. When a book sees the light of day, you make it your business to troop down to the nearest bookstore and judge its contents and quality for yourself. Of course, you may read a review of it in some newspaper or the other. But if you are a reader intent on analysing a book on your own, despite everything others might say about it, you will sift through its pages in meticulous detail. Book launches will then not impress you, for it is inconceivable that a star-studded event masquerading as a book launch, or a morhok unmochon as some call it, can be a fair enough commentary on intellect. Much a similar thing holds true of those occasions when writers sit behind a table, unblinking or stern-looking at fairs or solo exhibitions, pen in hand, to autograph copies of their newest book for starry-eyed buyers. That is arrogance at work, for by such gestures writers drive awe and sometimes fear (though the gaping buyer of the book does not know it yet) into their fans. And why must a writer have fans rather than readers?

Good question, but one that celebrity writers do not deign to answer. It is the in-thing these days to go for a launch, follow it up with animated discussions of the intellectual and literary world. Tea and coffee are served, along with a mishti or two. And then everything is forgotten, and not a little too soon. The world goes back to work. On the shelves and racks in bookstores, the launched book, once the euphoria of the speeches has melted away into time, lies forlorn. Something cracks in the heart. What began with a bang could well end in a whimper.

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