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Reading difficulties

We don’t seem to be doing enough reading or buying. An author’s sales figures in India (unless you happen to be Chetan Bhagat) are dismal, writes Soumya Bhattacharya.

india Updated: Aug 11, 2008 21:58 IST

In a 1946 essay, ‘Books v Cigarettes’, George Orwell explored, with penetrating and amusing insight, the reading and book-buying habits of his fellow Englishmen. He took the assumption — as prevalent in the England of 1946 as the India of 2008 — that “the buying, or even the reading, of books is an expensive hobby and beyond the reach of the average person”, and showed how much of a myth it was.

Taking the national average of smoking and drinking, Orwell demonstrated how “the [annual] cost of reading, even if you buy books instead of borrowing them and take in a fairly large number of periodicals, does not amount to more than the combined cost of smoking and drinking”.

I returned to Orwell’s essay after noticing over and over again just how few of us in public places have a book with us. How many people have you seen reading in an airport/on a plane/on the beach/having a solitary meal/on a park bench/at a salon/on a train or bus/in a doctor’s waiting room? Perhaps the only pleasure of travelling in an aeroplane nowadays — in what Jonathan Raban called its “sealed pod” — is to be able to read undistracted, free of the clutter and the white noise of our own lives. Phones can’t ring. Strangers don’t usually try and make conversation. Emails don’t ping in. Is there a better time?

Yet we don’t, really, do we?

The whole sub-genre of literary journalism alive in the West, that of ‘Summer Books’ or ‘Holiday Books’, doesn’t quite exist for us. What do we do on our holidays? Oh, we talk a lot on our mobile phones. (The roaming rates have been slashed again, let’s chatter some more.) But away from home and its attendant daily annoyances, we seldom commune with a dead master (or a living author).

We read, the 16th century English poet John Dryden told us, “for instruction and delight”. We read, as the Victorian novelist George Eliot said, because “art is the nearest thing to life”. What that means, the critic Louis Bayard explains, is that “to approach the mystery of our own condition, we have to grasp the mystery by which words make worlds”.

But we don’t seem to be doing enough reading or buying. An author’s sales figures in India (unless you happen to be Chetan Bhagat — not an aspiration anyone who fancies himself as a writer will share) are dismal. Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh’s latest, intricately plotted, page turner of a maritime adventure, is expected to sell 30,000 copies across the country. (And while we’re at it, this, his publishers say, will be one of the biggest sellers of the year for them.) It is Ghosh’s big breakthrough book, his most accessible, almost crossover novel. The equivalent in England would perhaps be Ian McEwan and Atonement. That sold millions, and is still selling.

The old argument about English being the language of the metropolitan elite won’t wash here. There are in Delhi or Mumbai alone more than a million buyers of daily English newspapers. And there are 30,000 buyers across India for probably the most-hyped, most riveting English book of the year from an Indian writer. Also, even allowing for the thing about English being the preserve of the elite, is Bengali literature flying off the shelves? Is Hindi? Not when I last noticed.

So why are we so loathe to buy books? Too expensive, we say. How can young people afford them? Well, let’s use an Orwellian parameter to calculate things.

It costs Rs 200 to watch a movie on a weekend evening at a multiplex. (And that’s without the popcorn and the soft drinks.) Now my edition of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road — for my money the finest novel of 2007 and a New York Times bestseller, which means that a lot of people, including those who make their reading choices based on what Oprah recommends in her book club, have bought it — costs Rs 195. A Penguin Modern Classic — the storehouse of the finest literature in the history of literature — usually costs Rs 250.

It costs Rs 900-1,200 for a meal for two at a restaurant in Mumbai. You could get the new Ghosh and the new book of stories by Jhumpa Lahiri (award-winning, finely calibrated, exquisite tales of belonging and loss) for Rs 1,049. It costs Rs 125-150 for a coffee and a sandwich at one of the coffee chains. A Penguin Popular Classic — the cheaper version of the Penguin Modern Classic — is available for Rs 95. Oh, and my Orwell Centenary Edition of Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays costs Rs 367. That’s less than what I would spend for a few drinks at a Mumbai bar. So it’s not the money. And it’s certainly not that we don’t have the time. (If I could lay my hands on a study that totted up the amount of time we spend sending text messages or watching puerile rubbish on TV or travelling, vacant-minded, and not reading…)

It’s just that we’d rather not buy books. Most of us choose not to.

How many times have you dined out/watched a movie/gone for a drink in, say, the past three months? And exactly how many books have you bought in that period? How many things have you actively sought out and read? (Text messages, credit card bills and restaurant menus don’t count.)

What is it in our culture — especially our aggressively consumerist, burgeoning middle-class and affluent, urban, elite culture — that makes us shy away from reading and buying? It suggests that we don’t have the patience for it, don’t quite appreciate what it can give us, don’t derive enough pleasure for it.

“We used to build civilisations,” Bill Bryson once wrote. “Now we build shopping malls.” And we love them. We can’t love shopping enough. But we don’t love shopping for books. It is an affront to the notion of being civilised.