@readingkafka on Twitter is a fascinating account on the state of libraries in India. Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta is almost evangelical in her desire to disseminate information about libraries and their positive impact upon local communities. This is a particularly interesting thread that I captured via screenshots.
A pile of Dorling Kindersley books that Sarah has amassed over the years. They form the core of her library. An absolutely brilliant set of books that are created by teams of experts. Each page layout is done with care to detail, facts, and matching the text with the image. Children of today are #visuallearners and are fortunate to live in an age where books exist that are profusely illustrated with photographs. So they get doses of reality, a visual mapping, while learning becomes an enjoyable experience. These encyclopaedias are so packed with information but the pictures hold prominence in every layout. An interesting methodology to book design as the child immerses themselves in the book, absorbed by the visual richness and slowly, over a period of time, familiarises herself with the text. It is important to note that the text never dumbs down the facts. It presents them as is.
Some of these books were gifted to Sarah when she was 7+ and my goodness, how they magically transformed her reading experience. She would sit for hours looking at the pictures, flipping pages and as her #literacyskills became stronger, she began to make sense of of text too and identify more about the creatures, plants, organisms, experiments, objects, geography, weather, etc presented in the books. These books snapped her out of only being absorbed by picture books and story books. There is some merit in kids being allowed their free time to.do exactly as they please, whether it is daydreaming or flipping through books. They get lost in their own little dream worlds. These moments of daze are crucial to their growth as it is increasingly being documented that the #brain grows in such moments with the nerves connecting, synapses finding new routes. These magnificent volumes are storytelling with a difference. The child visually maps her world. She is incredible to be growing up in a world where these images are easily available. For instance, the book on Oceans has gorgeous pictures that do not make the watery world mysterious. Whereas we grew up in a world where Jacques Cousteau was still discovering the wonders of the deep. This particular volume has a preface by Fabien Cousteau, s/o Jacques Costeau.
During the pandemic, when children were confined at home and had to attend classes remotely, these DK books proved to be extremely useful resource material to have handy. Sure, the Internet exists. It is a vast ocean of readily available information but it is not the same thing as paper editions. Learning and reading in many ways is a sensual exercise. The brain needs to be tickled to come alive and absorb. Kids are surrounded by visuals and learn better if provided sensual opportunities of learning. They need to be left alone to slowly see, observe, ponder over and make connections for themselves. Large format, richly illustrated books like this permit the children to lie down on their tummies and stare into the book. Many peaceful hours can be spent like this without the parents getting frantic about excessive time spent on electronic devices or worrying about which links the children will click upon leading them to external websites etc. Books like this, developed by established brands, are good investments as they are sound on their factchecking and photographs used. It is ethicalpublishing too as every image or text used is always credited. It makes for reliable information that can be shared easily with children.
Of course these books are priced on the higher side but are an excellent addition to any home or school library. I understand the reasons for the expense and do not grudge it at all. I would rather buy one of these books than multiple volumes of different reading abilities to say explain the human body to the child. Children are incapable of grasping more than they can at any given time and slowly grow into these books. But it is incredible watching their growth as one fine day comes that magical moment when everything comes together. Now we are at a stage whereas parents we have to be very careful about identifying animals or fish as Sarah knows the exact species and names them accurately.
During remote learning I found it convenient to consult these books and explain the basic concepts of energy, periodic table, life cycle of rocks, vegetation belts, the various systems of the human body, etc. It was possible to let Sarah browse through the books and get a grasp of the concepts her teachers were introducing in their virtual classrooms. But when the teacher is reduced to a tiny box on a computer screen and valiantly attempts to draw sketches on her computer screen to explain to her class, it works but only to a limited extent. A substantial part of the heavy lifting of ensuring the child understood the concept is left upon the parents — this has been particularly evident during the pandemic. It is as if parents were assisting the schoolteachers in “minding the gap” between acquiring information and learning. Even so, once the kids begin returning to school, this kind of “blended” learning is here to stay. Schools are preferring to adopt the #hybridlearning — mix of digital and physical classes. But somewhere the balance has to be also struck between print books and online resources as well. This is were publishing brands like Dorling Kindersley India prove incredibly useful.
A couple of years ago, my mother, Dr. Shobhana Bhattacharji, went to Armenia to attend a conference on Byron. It is the annual gathering of Byronists that is held every year in a different country. While there she came across a library for children. It looked like an ordinary building on the outside. But once in, it was stupendous. Mum loved it. Here are some pictures from her visit.
Heartstopper is a lovey-dovey story about two high school teenagers who discover that they are in love. Charlie and Nick are eighteen months apart in age. Charlie came out to his family and friends in Grade 9 and faced the horrific consequences of being bullied in school. Nick is the tough, popular, typical footballer-kind of schoolboy, who is in Grade 11. The three volumes are about Nick coming to terms with his love for Charlie. Nick is extremely hesitant and confused as he cannot undertand his attraction for the same sex particularly when he is also attracted to girls. Slowly Nick realises he is bisexual but his love for Charlie is for now firm.
The series move gently. At times it seems far too much time is spent in understanding and coming-to-terms with first love. But the awkwardness and anxiety riddled questions about whether the boys are making the right choices are very well presented. They are from a youngster’s perspective. It is difficult to describe but when adolescents are in love or think they are in love, it is a time-consuming preoccupation for them, usually at the cost of everything else — as Nick discovers when he fails to complete his maths homework,. His excuse? He had been up till late at night texting Charlie!
Heartstopper will fit very well in a YA LGBTQ+ list or section of a library except it is hard to imagine that many school librarians will permit these graphic novels to sit in the general section of their library. While YA LGBTQ+ lists are more and more well-defined with every passing year, their acceptance amongst the reading public will take time. The readers exist in the target audience of adolescents but the gatekeepers are still the adults. While novels of these lists are proliferating, particularly with Scholastic, graphic novels may be more challenging to accept for their explicit illustrations. Heartstopper is filled with innumerable scenes of kissing, hugging, cuddles and stolen moments between Nick and Charlie that may not go down too well with many adults who firmly believe that texts exploring sexuality are not necessarily to be introduced to imressionable minds. Having said that there are many, many reasons as to why these books must be shared, talked about and kept in classroom and institutional libraries. These are conversation starters. More importantly, while LGBTQ+ movements around the world continue gain in strength, younger generations continue to experience the confusion and anxiety that their sexual orientation may cause to them at first. It creates mental anguish that is not easy to share and discuss even with one’s closest family members as unfortunately acceptance of gay love continues to be taboo in many families. This is where books like Heartstopper prove to be useful. It is easy to read in solitude and come across questions that are constantly playing out in one’s mind. There are advantages of reading books as it helps in recognising and relating to scenarios outlines in the stories. LGBTQ+ activists may dismiss these books as being far too simplistic in their approach but the fact is that there are many youngsters who are worried and need to know. They may not be absolutely familiar with sophisticated arguments of the LGBTQ+ movement. It is important to start with the basics and slowly guide adolescents to a level of understanding and comfort that their anxiety about their sexual orientation is misplaced. As regards social acceptance, there are challenges but these too can be addressed slowly and steadily.
Heartstopper may not be to everyone’s liking but it is worth reading and discussing.
Invisible, a book written by the homeless, can be read only when it’s cold (Kapucynska Foundation, Warsaw, Poland) A special temperature-sensitive paint was used to print the text. The letters, the words, the sentences will become readable after a couple of minutes – but only if the temperature is lower than 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit)
Remembering Nüshu, the 19th-Century Chinese Script Only Women Could Write
The Deepalaya Community Library Project which is managed by Mridula Koshy and Michael Creighton has been doing some phenomenally good work at promoting reading in Delhi. They have collected books in their library by buying, crowdsourcing, donations etc. Last night on Facebook they posted the fantastic news that 17,508 books had been issued in the last one year! Of these the most popular books and titles were according to Mridula Koshy, “Pratham Books, Tulika Publishers, Katha India, CBT, NBT, Eklavya, Amar Chitra katha, Campfire Graphic Novels, A and A books, Tintin in Hindi from Om Books, Usborne Reading series from HarperCollins India, tons of non fiction titles from Doring Kindersley, and because we have adult members as well, we stock just about everything from Rupa’s new Chetan Bhagat title to Itihaas se Ajnabee by Aaatish Taseer. Our most popular type of book is the picture book. About 650 to 800 (depending on how you count it) active members use the library from the 1400 we have signed up over 2 years. Somewhere between 900 and 1000 books leave the library each weeks these days. Most are picture books.” Michael Creighton adds “”It took 14 months from Nov 2014 to Jan 2015 to reach our first 10k. Counting from Jan 2016 to Jan 2017 we issued 17, 508 books. And more than half of this year’s 17K have come in the last 4 months only!””
Another such community library for children has been set up recently in Delhi by Sudhanva Deshpande et al at Studio Safdar, May Day Cafe & Bookstore.
( I wrote an article for the amazing literary website Bookwitty.com on “Penguin on Wheels”. An initiative of Walking BookFairs and Penguin Books India. It was published on 28 June 2016. Here is the original url: https://www.bookwitty.com/text/penguin-on-wheels-walking-bookfairs-and-penguin-b/57725752acd0d076db037bf7 . I am also c&p the text below. )
Literature does not occur in a vacuum. It cannot be a monologue. It has to be a conversation, and new people, new readers, need to be brought into the conversation too.”
-Neil Gaiman, Introduction, The View from the Cheap Seats ( 2016)
On the 16th of May 2016, Penguin Random House India circulated a press release about Penguin Books India’s one-year collaboration with Walking BookFairs (WBF) to launch “Penguin on Wheels”, a bookmobile that will travel through the eastern Indian state of Odisha promoting reading and writing.
This is not the first time Walking BookFairs has collaborated with a publishing house to promote reading. Their earlier “Read More, India” campaign saw Walking BookFairs supported by HarperCollins India, Pan MacMillan India, and Parragon Books India. Apart from these three publishers, WBF stocked books from various other publishers, including Tara Books, Speaking Tiger Books, Penguin, Duckbill, Karadi Tales, and Scholastic. “We got books delivered by our publishers on the road wherever we were displaying books.”
The concept of bookmobiles is not unusual in India, for some decades the state-funded publishing firm, National Book Trust, has maintained its own book vans. Yet it is the duo of Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray that has captured the public imagination.
Walking BookFairs was established two years ago while Satabdi Mishra was on a break from her job and Akshaya Rautaray quit his publishing job to set up an independent “simple bookstore” in Bhubaneshwar. The shop, which they prefer to think of as a “book shack”, runs on solar power. It is a simple space with the bare necessities and a garden. They allow readers to browse through the bookshelves, offering a 20-30% discount on every purchase throughout the year.
WBF also doubles as a free library. They introduced the bookmobile in 2014, as part of an outreach programme that would see them travelling to promote reading in the state. Speaking to me by email, Satabdi said,
“There are no bookshops or libraries in many parts of India. There are thousands of people who have no access to books. We started WBF in 2014 because we wanted to take books to more people everywhere. We have been travelling inside our home state Odisha for the last two years with books. We found that most people do not consider reading books beyond textbooks important in India. We wanted people to understand that reading story books is more important than reading textbooks. We wanted to reach out to more people with books. We also wanted to inspire and encourage more people across the country to read books and come together to open more community libraries and bookshops.”
India is well known for stressing the importance of reading for academic purposes rather than reading for pleasure. In a country of 1.3 billion people, where 40% are below the age of 25 years old, and the publishing industry is estimated to be of $2.2 billion, there is potential for growth. Indeed,there has been healthy growth across genres, quite unlike most book markets in the world.
The WBF team has been keen to promote reading since it is an empowering activity. They began in the tribal district of Koraput, Odisha, where they carried books in backpacks and walked around villages. They displayed books in public spaces like bus stops and railways stations or spreading them out on pavements or under trees, whatever was convenient and accessible. “That works because people in smaller towns feel intimidated by big shops,” they say.
Apart from public book displays, they also visit schools, colleges, offices, educational institutions, and residential neighbourhoods. They soon discovered that children and adults were not familiar with books. Bookstores too seem only to be found in urban and semi-urban areas and are lacking in rural areas, but once easy access to books is created there is a demand. As Neil Gaiman says in the essay “Four Bookshops”, these bookshops “made me who I am”, but the travelling bookshop that came to his day boarding school was “the best, the most wonderful, the most magical because it was the most insubstantial”. (The View from the Cheap Seats)
Speaking again via email, Satabdi says that they’ve found, “Children’s books are always the most sought after. We have many interesting children’s storybooks and picture books with us. We found that in many places, not just children but also adults and young people enthusiastically pick up children’s books, browse through and read them. Beyond a couple of urban centres in India, big cities, there are no bookshops. Most bookshops that one comes across are shops selling textbooks, guide books or essay books. Many people were actually looking at real books for the first time at WBF.”
In India the year-on-year growth rate for children’s literature is estimated to be 100%. Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray stock 90% fiction. Rautaray says, “We believe in stories. I think, if you need to understand the world around you, if you need to understand science and history and sociology, you need to understand stories. I believe in a good book, a good story.”
The categories include literary fiction, classics, non-fiction, biographies, books on poetry, cinema, politics, history, economics, art visual imagery, young adult, picture books, children’s books, and regional literature from Odia and Hindi. The emphasis is on diversity, but they do not necessarily stock bestsellers or popular books like romance, textbooks, or academic books. That said, the Penguin on Wheels programme will dovetail beautifully with, “Read with Ravinder” another of the publisher’s reading promotion campaigns, spearheaded by successful commercial fiction author Ravinder Singh.
In December 2015, Satabdi and Akshay launched their “Read More, India” campaign (#ReadMoreIndia), which saw them take their custom-built book van, loaded with more than 4000 books across India. They covered 10,000kms, 20 states, in three months (from 15th Dec 2015 to 8th March 2016).
Over the course of the journey, they sold forty books a day, met thousands of people, and had a number of interesting experiences. One anecdote that gives an insight into the passion and trust that the young couple displays is of that of an elderly gentleman in Besant Road Beach road, Chennai. The older man was out for his daily jog and stopped to look at the books. He wanted to buy some books, but had left his wallet behind.
“We asked him to take the books and pay us later via cheque or bank transfer. He seemed surprised that we were letting him take the books without paying. He took the books and sent the money later with his driver. We want people to read more books. And if people cannot buy books, we want them to read books for free for as long as they want. People pay us in cash, in kind, sometimes they take books pay later, pay through credit/debit cards.”
The Penguin on Wheels campaign was launched because Penguin Books India had been following WBF’s activities and reached out to them. Earlier, they had collaborated for an author event in Odisha, but this new move is a focussed effort that will see the bookmobile travel within Odisha.
The books are curated by Akshay as Penguin Books India said graciously that “they [WBF] know best what their readers like more”. It will consist of approximately 1000 titles from the Penguin Random House stable. The collection will have books by celebrated authors, including Jhumpa Lahiri, John Green, Orhan Pamuk, Amitav Ghosh, Devdutt Pattanaik, Salman Rushdie, Ravinder Singh, Twinkle Khanna, Hussain Zaidi, Khushwant Singh, Roald Dahl, Ruskin Bond, and Emraan Hashmi.
Contests and author interactions will also be organised with the support or Penguin Random House. It will start with Ravinder Singh’s visit to Bhubaneshwar for the promotion of his newly launched book, Love that Feels Right. Satabdi Mishra adds, “We are happy to partner with PRH through the WBF ‘Penguin on Wheels’ that will spread the joy of reading around.”
The Beechwood library has its wall’s worth of books, most of which ( a maid knows) had hardly ever been touched. But in one corner, near a buttoned-leather soft was a revolving bookcase ( she liked to twirl it idly when she was cleaning) in which were kept books that clearly had been read. Surprisingly perhaps, in such a generally grown-up place, they were books that harked back to childhood, boyhood or gathering manhood, books that she imagined might once have flitted between the library and those silent rooms upstairs. There were even a few books that looked newly and hopefully purchased, but never actually begun.
Rider Haggard, G.A.Henty, R.M.Ballantyne, Stevenson, Kipling … She had good reason to remember the names and even the titles on some of the books. The Black Arrows, The Coral Island, King Solomon’s Mines …she would always see their grubby, frayed dust jackets or the exact coloration of their cloth bindings, the wrinkling and fadings of their spines.
Of all the rooms at Beechwood, in fact, the library, for all its dauntingness, was the one she most liked to clean. It was the room in which she most felt like some welcome, innocent thief.
Graham Swift’s novella Mothering Sunday is a dazzlingly splendid meditation on reading. If it were not for the fabric of a plot and the misleading subheading in the title “A Romance”, this little novella would be a prime example of a powerful interior monologue by an accomplished writer exploring his individual talent in a literary tradition.
Read it. Read it for the story at its face value. Read it for its social commentary. Read it for a century of world of English literature and translations it unveils. Read it to find your inner equilibrium. (It is incredible how much more at peace I was at for having read this slim book.)
Graham Swift Mothering Sunday Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2016.
My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 15 August 2015) and will be in print ( 16 August 2015). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/jaya-bhattacharji-rose-on-the-relevance-of-libraries-today/article7539673.ece#. I am also c&p the text below.
Buying books the traditional way is a cherished subjective experience, heavily dependent on the curating abilities of the book buyer.
My five-year-old daughter asked me, “Why can’t libraries be like bookshops? If we like a book, why must we return it to the library? Why can we not buy and keep it?” I was stumped. It was a perceptive observation.
In Delhi, two iconic bookshops — Fact & Fiction and Galgotia — are closing. There are many factors responsible globally for closure of bookstores, such as rising rents, fewer customers and an increasing use of e-readers like Kindle, iPads and smartphones. Buying books the traditional way is a cherished subjective experience, heavily dependent on the curating abilities of the book buyer. Obviously, a regular customer is wistful at the announcement of their favourite bookstore closing. On the other hand, online retailers have to innovate, evolve and work constantly at providing customer satisfaction without ever knowing who is buying from their portal.
For most readers, it is like being in a dream spell. Having read about a book, many readers want instant gratification and engage in impulsive buying, usually possible only with online retail. It is a human behaviour that has evolved with access to the Internet 24×7 for more than a generation.
Recently, I read a bunch of absolutely delightful titles from the TED Books that take off from where TED talks leave off, such as Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness, Chip Kidd’s Judge This and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should all be Feminists. I also read a devastatingly moving novel, The Blue between Sky and Water, by Palestinian writer Susan Abulhawa; a delightful anthology, The Pleasure of Reading,edited by Antonia Fraser; and an excellent collection of commentaries, Nehru’s India, edited by Nayantara Sahgal. War novel Escape from Baghdad! by Bangladeshi Saad Hossain and The Word at War made it to the list. When I discuss these books animatedly with friends, many automatically order these online. This change in human behaviour has affected the lifeline of bookstores.
In a possible model for a bookstore of the future, non-profit Pioneer Works in Red Hook, U.S., opened a ‘remarkably small’ bookstore. It stocks new and used books, local zines, lit mags, children’s books conveniently located at their height and a modest wall spotlighting a rotating small press. Also, the shop clerk assures customers that if they do not find the book title they are looking for, he will order it for them.
Then there is Trilogy in Mumbai, founded by Meethil Momaya and Ahalya Naidu in December 2014. It houses a library and a bookstore; though they are under the same roof they do not share shelf space. Titles are available in Hindi, English and Marathi. The library functions like any old-school library and the bookstore works like (almost) any other bookstore in the world. The very idea of having a bookstore and a library together in the same place without a wall dividing the two was to allow members the freedom to read books without owning them (library) and when they love a book they would like to own, they always have the option of buying it (bookstore). There is a symbiotic relationship between the two spaces. Borrowers very often want to buy the book they have either issued or find in the library. If it is available in the bookstore they can buy it immediately.
There is also the model that legislator Dr. T.M. Thomas Isaac has suggested in Kerala wherein libraries turn into centres for students to gather and study together in the evenings.
These examples illustrate a recommendation made at the Indian Public Libraries Conference 2015 held on March 17-19, 2015 in New Delhi. Recommendation on refurbishment of public libraries, point 8f, states, “Facilities in public libraries should include, ‘multi-purpose social space’ for use by the community extending services beyond the provision of reading facilities.”
Paul X. McCarthy, in Online Gravity: The Unseen Force Driving the Way You Live, Earn, and Learn, illustrates how a new set of economic rules, very different from those in the physical world, are governing businesses. According to him, one of the fundamental consequences of gravity-giant formation is the way in which it is influencing the shape of products, companies and ultimately the whole economy online. But I wonder if the cross-filtering and influencing of experiences across mediums has not already begun? What is the future of libraries and bookstores if they don’t evolve by catering to community demands and expectations? Libraries and bookstores die because they fail to fulfil this. Reading may be a personal experience, but libraries and bookstores are social experiences. Somewhere the customised experiences of individuals increasingly created by blending digital and real services have begun to spill over into the physical world.
Slim hardback volume of poems by Adil Jussawalla. Written over many years, some previously published in Nabina Das’s The Four Quarters Magazine . Publishers rarely deign to publish poetry, but the editors of Duckbill were spot on in publishing this collection of poetry. Poems, if well crafted, are exquisitely designed pieces. With every reading, you discover something new. I was fascinated with The Right Kind of Dog, for its range of ideas explored, for the experimentation of form, metre and rhythm. The poems can be read in solitude, they can be shouted out aloud or simply read out to a group of friends. The poems tend to trickle into the reader’s consciousness and stay there, commenting upon the mundane ( “Visiting Relatives”) or plucking an idea from mythology ( “A Song for Eklavya”) or simply reflecting ( “Christmas card”).
It may seem like a steep price to pay at Rs 200 for a slim volume like this, but it is money well spent. In the few pages of poems, there is so much to read, assimilate, revisit and appreciate. Most importantly, if this is targeted at young adults, then it is well suited. The gentleness and kindness that seeps through the poetry, reaches out to readers who are testing their wings, asserting their identities, slightly confused/overawed by the world, these poems speak well to them, without talking down. ( “the Good-for-Nothing”, “Imagination” and “My Fold-Up Poem”) These poems need to be accessed by many. Maybe have sessions in schools, libraries, colleges etc. Otherwise this volume will languish in warehouses.
The illustrations by Ahlawat Gunjan are beautiful. The art work complements the poems well.
Here is a link to Adil Jussawalla reading his poems: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kN1JNFAu6e4&feature=player_embedded
Adil Jussawalla The Right Kind of Dog Duckbill Books, Chenna, 2013. Hb. pp.30. Rs. 200