Who says reading has declined?

Let us admit it- many of us think it fashionable to mourn about change as degeneration. History has seen many an instance of innovation being first looked upon with suspicion, then as convenience and finally as something to mourn about. Nobel Laureate Luigi Pirandello once snubbed the automobile,  ‘the triumph of folly’, but that never deterred the growth of the automobile industry. Centuries ago, when printing was introduced, there  were many who felt that it ‘bred heresy and dissent’ and ‘gave common folk dangerous ideas’.  American  historian Daniel Boorstin called Television   ‘the next great crisis in human consciousness’. Such crises attend the birth of every new form of mass communication. Even written word had not emerged unchallenged. Plato had warned: ‘Disciples of writing would generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the shadow of wisdom without reality’. Video, computer and internet have faced such initial, pointless hostility, but when they outgrew such resistance, the critics began to sigh – degeneration! To add effect and reason to their lament about the media other than print, they point to what they call the ‘death of the habit of reading’.

This is a lament heard all over the world, during the last three or four decades. It seems to be based on the notion that traditional reading is the only way to being informed and that there is nothing to beat the printed word in creating an informed world. For instance, the spread of Television was feared to dampen the prospects of the printed word.  Some studies have also revealed that in countries like the US and UK, the newspapers had fallen to the second place  as early as 1970’s and  that people in the developed world are ‘spending less time reading books and more time interacting with the visual media than ever before’.

The situation  in Kerala is no different. Just like in the case of  the diffusion rate of newspapers, the reach of the channels is also quite high in  Kerala. While the rate of cable penetration is around 30% in India, the rate in Kerala is well above 60%. Out of the 70 lakh households, almost 45 to 50 lakh households have access to TV sets. Though there is capital enough to support hardly three channels, we have over a dozen channels operating somewhat successfully in Kerala. In spite of all this, most of the dailies are gaining in circulation and have even  diversified their areas of operation.

Seeing this, one tends to agree with John Naisbitt, author of Mindset! and Megatrends, who asked : ‘How can we be sure that we are in a shift from the written word and our own imagination  to instant picture consumption – a visual world?’ If we limit the scope of this article to the situation in Kerala, one cannot ignore the growth and development of publishing houses. Most of the major cities of the State now have large showrooms of leading publishers, some of whom have expanded their business by bringing out English books. Even the publishing units owned by the Government and Universities are performing well in terms of sale of books. In the recent past, there has been a considerable increase in the number of small and middle level private publishers, some of whom bring out nearly a hundred titles a year. Interestingly, we do not hear of too many publishers shutting shop for want of business.

In spite of such a boom, we hear the lamentation about the death of the habit of reading. To a certain extent, it is the definition of reading that makes people lament so. There was a time when the term ‘reading’ brought to mind mainly books of fiction, literature, political science, economics etc., But, times have changed and so has the nature of reading. It may be true that  not many publishers bring out plays and epic poems, because there is hardly any market for such books. The number of copies sold by weeklies that serialized pulp literature, has nosedived to almost one fourth of the mammoth figures of a decade ago. This, the marketing executives say,  is because TV gives the same pleasure, visually . Such weeklies now claim, that they compete not with each other, but with television serials!  No one publishes drama, mostly because people have the option of watching many a drama  on the small screen. But, one must recall that even in these much televised days, Sethu’s recent novel Atayalangal has had seven prints  in a year.   Novels of O.V.Vijayan and Perumpadavom  have crossed the one lakh mark. The collection of ONV’s poems and even Prof. Panmana’s  books on the right use of language have crossed such thresholds. Is this because no one reads?

As mentioned earlier, the number of books published in a year has been increasing, but the size of the book, in general, has decreased. Given that a publication with 60 pages and above would qualify to be called a book (less than that would make it only a pamphlet), most of our books be of around 100-120 pages. Thin in appearance, but easily read and enjoyed with the ease of sitting through an episode of a tele-serial. This may also point towards the readers’ affinity towards books that can be read in the shortest time. There has also been an interesting shift in the readers’ choice of books. For instance, books on personality development, career information, soft skills, human resources development, management and books that provide instructional wisdom have become very popular among readers, as is evinced by the rise in sale of such publications.

 

Another fact to be considered is the availability of alternate facilities to supplement the reading experience. For instance, one can  depend on  an audio disc to enjoy poetry, well narrated. Heard poetry registers more effectively in the reader’s mind than verses that are read and punctuated in the mind. If the motive behind reading is pleasure, one gets this pleasure through listening also. Since the ultimate aim of any message is to reach people, why should we insist that it should be only through reading?

Besides, those who lament the neglect of the habit of reading books are often partisan, as they fail to see the quantum of material that is read on the internet and other new media, including the mobile phones.  Interestingly, many of those who decry the effect of such media, do not realize their  contribution to reading – first by being topics to be written about and then by supplementing the reading experience.

 

Seeing the growth of the electronic media, Marshall Mc Luhan, said : ‘The future of the book is the blurb’ . He intended to say that the Book would die in the 80s, and if at all its fossils continue to live, those would live only in the corners of some libraries . But it was the prophet of doom, Mc Luhan who died in the ‘80s. The books continue to live…

 

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