The Indian journalist and writer Khushwant Singh was once asked about the importance of books in life. His reply came in a melange of Hindi and Urdu, pure Hindustani: A home which has no books has ghor andhera- pitch darkness. In homes where there is only one book, everyone living in it is like a one-eyed kaana. Homes where there are plenty of books, there is ujalaa hee ujaala -lots of light. You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them. Perhaps Aldous Huxley said it in a terse statement, 'The proper study of mankind is books.'
There can be little doubt that a home without books is symbolic of dismal darkness. What is to blame? Or who is to blame? When a major section of our population is half-literate and most others can't afford to buy books, we don't see the picture improving. One may wonder what Francis Bacon would write today, more than four hundred years after his essay 'Of Studies'. The opening words: 'Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. Their chief use for delight is in privateness and retiring; for ornament is in discourse; and for ability is in the judgement and disposition of business.' His wit went further: 'Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.' Then came the delineation: Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.
The Kolkata writer Tarapada Roy, who hailed from our Tangail, once wrote in weekly Desh that when he was shifting to another house the Sikh truck driver noticed plenty of books to carry along with many other household goods. He was clearly exasperated and asked Tarapada: “Couldn't you get to finish reading these books before?” Who would make that truck driver understand that books have to be a life long addiction? One can never say one has read enough. In a contrary setting in London, I was an ERD member in an Education Ministry delegation recently to study the system of Special Needs Education for physically impaired children in the UK. A full time luxury bus was with us. We had to drop in at different places for visits and meetings every day. Whenever we returned to the bus from a visit to move on to the next programme, we would find the bus driver engrossed in reading a book. Even in Morocco I saw people commuting by railway trains pass their time in reading books, Quran, sura...
The pleasure of reading is varied. Besides a passion for and an acquisition of knowledge, another is just increasing the number of books in order to impress others. A friend of mine in school finished reading 81 books by Niharanjan Gupta. The score was important. Nihar Babu certainly generated interest in us for novels in our teens. There are a few homes with plenty of books on various genres ranging from divinity to religion to superstition. Some of the owners, part of the nouveau riche, tend more toward a display of these books rather than read them. They buy huge shelves and stock them with Rabindranath, Bankim, Sharat, Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, Goethe and other classics and encyclopaedias. Still it is appreciable that they know the value of books and can make good selections of them. Anthony Powell's quip 'Books do furnish a room' only reasserts Cicero's remark more than a thousand years ago, 'A room without books is like a body without a soul.'
It has been a custom in our country for people to collect monetary donations for various purposes. But have we ever seen people collecting money to found a library in their locality? Over the past 110 years, 14 million Jews have won over 15 dozen Nobel Prizes while only three Nobel Prizes have been won by 1.4 billion Muslims (other than peace prizes). George Soros, a Jew, has so far donated a colossal $4 billion, most of which has gone as aid to scientists and universities around the world. After him is Walter Annenberg, another Jew, who has built a hundred libraries by donating an estimated $2 billion. Thus reading books is not only related to personal development but also to national and universal growth. Earlier in British colonial times, schools, colleges and libraries were founded by Hindu philanthropists. We have a lone champion who has been trying to enlighten our people by developing reading habits to evoke the spirit of Aalokito Manush (enlightened being) in us. At Bishwa Shahitya Kendra he set libraries and formed reading circles. One can feel elevated in that edifying atmosphere. In addition to it the Kendra has been running mobile libraries across the capital. But its present look is reflective of the pitiable state of reading habits among our younger generation --- old mobile library buses trying to attract readers in Azimpur, Eskaton and other areas and failing to do so. BSK needs to address the causes by overhauling its system, putting newer vehicles in place, improving the quality of book selection and introducing recent publications on various genres. Innovation and reinvention are called for.
When I look back at my Singapore experience I recall the large number of community libraries there. They are regulated by the central library. Plenty of readers, including children and school goers, spend time in these vibrant libraries. Who will believe that the Internet, DVD and cable TV have affected their print media and their reading habits? Indeed, they are duly utilising modern technology in those libraries. I was part of MATT (Management At The Top) training programme at Singapore Civil Service College. My group was assigned to visit a community library in the Boon Lay area and write a report on it. I was amazed to notice the importance given by the Singapore government to its libraries --- regional library, community library, et cetera, across the country. A similar scene prevailed in our country long before the digital age came in. Book stores and public libraries were the places where most of our people were seen enjoying their times. In districts and small towns, public libraries were a familiar sight.
Now we dream of digital everything! In my student life I found many book shops in the then Dacca. Bookshops like Ideas, Marietta and Standard Publications on the first floor of Stadium Market and Paragon Book House in Gulistan had good collections. New Market was a retreat for book lovers. But gradually many bookstores got transformed into shops displaying sundries. Boipotro was another small impressive bookstore near the entrance to Balaka cinema hall. Paragon and Boipotro bookstores now house shoe stores! Later Aziz Super Market was another haven for them. But now the picture is dominated by mobile, boutique, surgical, leather and sweetmeat shops! In the early 1990s another impressive bookshop, The Bookworm, opened at the old airport and instantly attracted many book lovers. While I was in New Delhi, I looked for the famous bookshop Bookworm at Connaught Place. They told me it had closed down.
The pleasure of reading is doubled when one lives with another who shares the same books. Nevertheless, who can deny Moličre? Books and marriage go ill together! Indeed we don't have much time to spend on books. People have no time for leafing through Victorian novels. But other genres, including non-fiction, come up in such profusion that we get confused in the matter of choice. Yet there is no substitute for books. Big bookstalls brim over with crowds. The Booker and Pulitzer prizes are announced every year. In Japan, the recent bestseller is a novel written in SMS text format. It is now going to be made into a movie.
When we think of children in a context of reading habits, we know that reading greatly benefits children and is a topic that parents should feel vital for any child's development. Much like vaccination, it is the parents' duty to inculcate the reading habit in their children. The greatest gift we can give our children is the gift of ourselves - our time, our talents, our prayers, our thoughts of kindness and our acts of love and compassion. Any day is a good day to step forward and offer the gift of our self by giving a book to our little ones!
Reading builds our self-image. It strengthens our ability to communicate. Reading offers exposure to self-counsel. Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more importantly, it finds homes for us everywhere. Books are said to be like friends: they should be few and well chosen.
Reading is a necessity for development of leadership. Anyone who has visited the Indira Gandhi and Nehru Memorials in New Delhi must have noticed the vast bookshelves, reading tables and scattered books still lying there. Like Churchill and other statesmen, Nehru built a reputation as an author as well, thus justifying his passion for reading. Nehru was reading Robert Frost's 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening' --- But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep --- the night he died. Reading is a common phenomenon in India and the tradition began with the founding of Fort William College, perhaps. No wonder why it has produced so many outstanding leaders, scholars and writers, although one can frown on the state of printing and publications in the era of Mughal Emperor Humayun, a time when Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) famously noted, 'When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes'. This tradition has gone on in Europe.
Finally, on a lighter note, let us recall that old Bengali adage of choori bidya being boro bidya.... Note its French version, from the Nobel Laureate Anatole France: Never lend books, for no one ever returns them; the only books I have in my library are books that other folks have left me.
Be that as it may, we should have books. Keep a bookshelf in the office, in the house. There is an aphorism: 'Tell me whom you love; I will tell you who you are.'
Reading really matters, you know.
Salahuddin Akbar is a senior civil servant and has been an occasional contributor to The Daily Star.