November issue 2010
Following the Reader
The low literacy level aside, Pakistanis are increasingly reading everything that comes their way. Pakistan is a dichotomy. Tragedy and triumph, development and destruction. With events unfolding at a rapid pace, Pakistan is a story a minute. And to keep abreast, there is a new awareness among its people, a growing need to know.
This is evident in the reading trends that have emerged in recent times. “Reading habits have picked up lately,” says Francis DeSouza, senior manager of Liberty Books at Park Towers, Karachi. “Why? Because of the media. With so many talk shows holding serious discussions these days, everybody wants to know what’s going on in the world. They want to know about everything that’s being spoken of around them. So reading trends of political books have especially gone up,” he says.
A brief survey of best-selling books in popular bookshops in Karachi and Lahore testify to his observation. Waqarul Haq, assistant manager at Vanguard Books, Lahore, reveals that political and current affairs books are the most demanded genre in his store these days. “Fatima Bhutto’s book Songs of Blood and Sword, Taliban by Ahmed Rashid and Flight of the Falcon by Sajjad Haider, are all in high demand these days,” he says. “Even foreigners are interested in buying such books.”
Founder of the Readers Club, an online book rental service that loans unlimited books to members for a nominal fee, Usman Siddiqui contends: “We, as a nation, have a love for conspiracy theories. So the Taliban and such subjects are very popular. We have dozens of books on politics that are popular reads, such as those by Fareed Zakaria and those on the topic of 9/11. But we try to carry a large selection of biographies too.”
Understandably so. Biographies seem to be high up on the list of best-selling books. With so much exposure of foreign affairs via the media, local figures aren’t the only people Pakistanis are interested in. “For example, Tony Blair’s biography was recently launched, but before the book even came out, we had a lot of people signing up in advance to book themselves a copy,” says Mohsin Ali, another senior manager of Liberty Books at The Forum, Karachi.
Aside from political affairs that have increasingly compelled people to pick up non-fiction books, other changes in Pakistan have also allowed for other trends to emerge in the reading patterns of our society. Many English-writing Pakistani authors have emerged in the literary field in the last decade. Prior to their existence, fiction was a popular genre, but the books that sold were written by foreign authors who wrote of foreign people and cultures. With the growing emergence of local and regional authors — Pakistani, Indian, Sri Lankan — there is a whole new world that has opened up to the local reader — and it is a familiar world, comprising places and cultures they can relate to. But this magnifying interest in local authors has created a supply and demand problem. “We have a large demand for Asian authors such as Rohinton Mistry from India and our own Mohsin Hamid,” says Ali. “A lot of people enjoy keeping track of the works of local authors. However, the problem is with their yield. They don’t produce as many novels as foreign authors do. For example, Danielle Steele comes out with a new novel every three months, but Kamila Shamsie’s last novel came out nearly two years ago,” he adds.
That said, the demand for modern and classic fiction is still very much alive. “People always read Jane Austen and D.H. Lawrence, but I feel like the circle is growing wider,” says Ali. “There is a growing awareness and even schools are playing their role in encouraging reading habits. They give reading assignments other than course books, such as the works of Oscar Wilde. It opens new vistas for them rather than TV or movies or games, and positively impacts their personalities.”
A factor that influences sales of books in Pakistan is when it is learnt that successful new film releases are based on published books. Many people come seeking those books. “Movies such as Eat Pray Love and The Last Song are all books-turned-movies, and as soon as people watch them, they come asking for the book,” says DeSouza. Due to the accessibility of the Internet, avid readers are also aware of Booker-Prize winners, and as soon as they hear of popular books by these authors, the demand for them suddenly increases.
Religion is another genre that has aroused the interest of many Pakistanis in current times. The creeping religious intolerance and fundamentalism has got many people wanting to probe Islam and its values. “While religion has not traditionally been a top-selling genre, people are increasingly interested in it,” says Ali. “Sufism is one of the most popular subjects in the category; Sadia Dehlvi’s book on Sufism was in high demand in the past days and did very well,” he says.
One category that doesn’t seem to be doing so well in Pakistan’s bookstores anymore is that of Urdu literature. “There is still a demand for Urdu books but not as much as there used to be before. We used to have a big range of Urdu books, but gradually the demand waned, so we keep a much smaller selection now,” says DeSouza. Siddiqui adds to this by saying, “People who still read Urdu literature, read classics and old authors such as Manto and Rajinder Singh Bedi, as there is very little new quality Urdu literature being written nowadays.” There is also a new trend in Pakistan: to make TV dramas out of books, such as those by Razia Butt and Umera Ahmad, which prove relatively popular. “The new Urdu literature tends to be more for commercial reasons and public consumption,” says Siddiqui. “So even though there is some new Urdu literature being written by contemporary authors, it is not of the same quality or high standards as older books,” he says. Furthermore, Urdu book sales are only common in a niche category. “Generally, Urdu readership consists of those over 40. Not very many young readers are interested in Urdu literature anymore,” Siddiqui notes.
While the bulk of readers are of age 20 and up, most bookshops, proprietors and salespeople interviewed for this article noted a new trend on the rise. “Nowadays, you will find young parents coming in with their toddlers in prams. The kids may not understand anything, but the parents are showing them books with colours and pictures,” laughs DeSouza. He adds, “It’s good; they buy their children these books. It will get them in the habit of reading.” And nowadays, book fairs on school premises tend to be very successful. “Children do buy books at our bookfairs. And even if they don’t buy them, they browse through them,” says DeSouza. And it is encouraging to note, as Siddiqui reports, that a lot of parents have signed up their children with the Readers Club. “We saw a major uptake in children’s memberships during the summer holidays. Unfortunately, once school starts, children become so bogged down with their curriculum, that they don’t get much time to read for leisure,” Siddiqui says.
As far as magazine trends go, fashion seems to be the most popular genre locally, especially for women. “Libas and Cosmopolitan are some of our best-selling magazines. Newsweek and The Economist sell well too, but generally speaking, magazine sales are comparatively low nowadays,” says DeSouza. He explains that ever since publications have started going online, people would rather read them on the Internet as magazine prices are quite high.
There is a perception that ever since inexpensive roadside booksellers and cartshops have been largely replaced by fancy, state-of-the-art bookstores, book-buying, and consequently the habit of reading, has become an “elitist” activity — something that only the rich can afford to do. This however, proves to be fallacious in the light of what booksellers reveal. “Reading is in no way limited to the more affluent sections of society. I think our biggest membership block if you look area wise, is in Gulshan, Gulistan-e-Jauhar and North Nazimabad. Initially our members were mostly from Defence and Clifton. But when word of our facility spread, it dispelled the notion that reading was limited to a certain section of society,” says Siddiqui.
While reading may still be confined to just a few in Pakistan given the literary level here, most bookstore owners are optimistic about it being on the upswing. “Five years ago, people did not read as much, especially the youth. But I see more and more people coming back towards it,” says Ali. And that can only be a good thing.