I often meet educators and school leaders who lament the decline in the reading habits of children and young people. Many of them go so far as to say that the social and interpersonal degeneration in contemporary Indian society can be traced back to, amongst other things, a lack of good reading habits.
They may have a point.
Children don't read as much or as broadly as they used to and educators blame this, rightly or wrongly, on electronic gadgets, smart phones, a lack of parenting role models and the micro-attention-span-spawning social and mainstream media. The habit of reading a good book is indeed dying out and sad to say, it is now more exception than rule to find high school students who read widely, above and beyond what they are expected to as part of their syllabi.
If this had been a political rally or a shoe sale, I dare say the atmosphere would have been markedly different!
However, there are still those who love a good book and when a leading publishing house recently announced a warehouse sale in the largely industrial town of Faridabad on the outskirts of Delhi, book lovers came together from near and far, even if it meant making a trip out into another city during the height of summer. A few days before this rather unique sale took place, The Indian Express announced:
Delhi book lovers rejoice, and then promptly mark your calendars for June 24-25. Harper Collins has announced the mother of all book sales at their Faridabad (NCR) warehouse this June-end, and you'd better be there on time for first picks. There will be over 100,000 books on sale, with more than 1,000 titles that span across genres (from children's books and dictionaries to adult fiction), and they will all be available at throwaway prices of Rs 25, Rs 50 and Rs 100 (for coffee table books!).
"This is unprecedented. We are expecting 500-600 people to come over the two days, but going by interest levels already -- I've received calls from the Andamans, Odisha, Himachal Pradesh -- it might be more. I am expecting close to 100 people just when we open," says (the) Head, Warehouse and Distribution...
That was probably the understatement of the season!
Sociological and educational studies over the years have borne out the direct link between the love of reading and civility.
I actually thought I had arrived early on the first day of the sale until I realized at least 500 people, if not more, had already beaten me to it! Five hundred people were jammed into a little lane next to the publisher's warehouse! Not only was the lane chock-a-block, so was a stretch of Mathura Road, clogged with the cars of those who were trying to park near the warehouse. It was slightly surreal to see hundreds of book lovers -- young, middle-aged and old -- making their way down a dirty little lane in an industrial area! It was a bit dismaying to see such a huge crowd, but it was also strangely encouraging to see so many people brave heat and dust to get a good deal on a book!
While some book lovers had had the foresight to carry umbrellas, most sweltered in the pre-monsoon sun. Hundreds upon hundreds of people waited quietly, barely able to move because of the great throng. I waited in the crowd for about 30 minutes, chatting with those around me, thinking that perhaps the gates hadn't opened yet, till I saw a young couple struggling through the crowd making their way back. I asked them what was happening. The man laughed and said, "They are only letting in 10 people at a time. You'll get your turn in another five hours".
I waited another five minutes, decided that I did not want to get sun stroke, and then with great reluctance, left. The publisher had certainly underestimated the numbers that would show up and perhaps they could have managed their sales operation better, but as I headed back to Gurgaon from whence I had come, all I could think about was that crowd.
Something about that crowd was unusual. It was calm and peaceful. Despite the heat and humidity, no one was pushing, yelling or screaming. My first thought at entering a crowd that size would have been the fear of a stampede, but no such apprehension had crossed my mind. Instead, I had felt strangely comfortable in that hot, sweaty mass.
And then it dawned on me. Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that these were all book lovers! They were people who liked to read and maybe that is why they were better behaved and calmer than most other crowds I had seen. If this had been a political rally or a shoe sale, I dare say the atmosphere would have been markedly different! A lot of people like me waited a while and then went home, quietly disappointed. But there was no shouting or protesting. There was a crowd but there was no chaos.
Maybe the appalling increase in incivility in our cities is linked to our rapidly decreasing love of reading.
Sociological and educational studies over the years have borne out the direct link between the love of reading and civility. Reading Shakespeare for example has been shown to increase positive brain activity, reading literary fiction actually increases our levels of empathy and one 2009 study by Sussex University researchers showed that reading could reduce stress by as much as 68%! People who read more tend to be more open to others' points of view -- all very necessary ingredients for a civil society.
The relative calm outside the warehouse definitely seemed to bear out what the research was showing.
The experience got me thinking. Maybe the appalling increase in incivility in our cities is linked to our rapidly decreasing love of reading. Maybe one of the best ways to re-cultivate courtesy and decency in the public space and society at large is to encourage the reading habit in a much bigger way. Maybe we need to build better public libraries and reading rooms in greater numbers. Perhaps if we make reading the next big thing, then the depleted groundwater of social civility will finally begin to rise. And last but not least, maybe we need to vote in those who will allocate a greater share of the country's national budget to literacy and education and encourage us to read broadly and think for ourselves.
It's a thought, isn't it?
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