Once upon a time, there were many readers. Curling up with a good book was an idea that found favour with most people, come rain (as in monsoon) or shine (when the blazing sun made one drop holiday games of cricket or football and rush indoors in search of cool drinks and cooler comics).
But first video, and then satellite channels, CD/DVD players, X-boxes, iPods and mobile phone thingamajigs put an end to all that. Today, these gizmos have severely dented reading habits; beating the once venerable book to a, well, pulp.
One of the most depressing fallouts of this trend is the near-disappearance of libraries. Shops selling CDs/DVDs, hawking the latest gaming consoles or peddling mobile accessories run into thousands. But there are only a couple of decent libraries for Indore’s 20-odd lakh residents. As for the various ‘vachnalayas’ (reading rooms) scattered around town, you’d be lucky to get the day’s newspaper there. To a certain extent private lending and reading libraries have stepped in to bridge the gap.
But while the material here covers the entire paperback gamut from Nancy Drew to Nancy Friday, there’s little for the serious reader.
For someone weaned on that potent neural aphrodisiac, the musty smell of old books, it’s disturbing to watch libraries vanish in this manner. Libraries, after all, are the repositories of a society’s knowledge; its socio-cultural moorings bound in hardback.
And for this reason were traditionally the first targets of invaders seeking to impose their superiority.
Would Bakhtiyar Khilji, who burnt Nalanda, or Felipe de Olivera — the Portuguese commander who set alight Saraswathy Mahal, arguably the greatest collection of Tamil literature — have torched DVD shops? One doubts it.
As Timothy Leary, acid guru of the 1960’s, put it, “To those with ears to hear, libraries are really very noisy places. On their shelves we hear the captured voices of the centuries-old conversations that make up our civilization.”
Unfortunately, no one’s listening.