The month-long Ekushey book fair at the Bangla Academy has transcended from a modest promotion of creativity in print form into a national cultural surge centring around books. Hundreds of titles make their appearance on the occasion of this fair. By the first week, this year, about 550 titles have already made it to the book stalls set up at the venue. More are on their way. Sure enough, not all are new titles. Some of those -may be 20 -25 per cent -are reprints. Yet it does in no way undermine the euphoria over the fair.
When enthusiasm is so overwhelming and passion runs high over writing, printing, marketing and purchasing books, there are reasons to believe that people's love for published works is unalloyed. If the number of titles is a fair reflection, writers and poets are also coming up in a large number. How the business of books is may indeed present a true picture of the enterprise. There is no doubt that publishers make profit or else they would not have invested money in publication.
However, there is a catch 22. Not all writers sell, only a handful of them do. This select band enjoys enormous popularity. Who are their readers, then? The first impression would be impressive because contrary to the widely held notion that the young generation and children have turned their back to books, these segments of population are in the forefront of the reading circles. Story tellers like Humayun Ahmed, Jafar Iqbal and Imdadul Haq Milon are their favourites. Their stories - popular fictions and thrillers -appeal to these classes of readers because of the protagonists' passion, emotion and virtuosity on the one hand and the suspense maintained throughout the story on the other.
What about general readers matured enough, not easily to be satisfied? Admittedly, they are becoming a rare species. Barring a few enlightened and select people, the general readers have mostly given up on books. A national survey on such readership would most likely present a dismal picture. Entrance of electronic gadgets is mainly responsible for taking the public away from books. Yet the mandatory annual procurement of books for school libraries with funds allocated by the government has at least stood against the trend. Thus some people have not given up their passion for books even in villages. But their number is dwindling fast.
Sure enough, there is every reason to feel elated by the fact that the concept of a book fair has defied the overpowering intrusion of recreation and entertainment dished out to all corners of the country by electronic media. Visual charm and a wide variety of programmes, including the explicit and titillating sorts, hold the viewers spellbound. Against these, books are apparently fighting a losing battle.
So beneath the euphoric exuberance over the Ekushey book fair, there runs an undercurrent of concerns about the future of print materials. The jubilant mood depicted by the media may indeed give a false impression. Numbers of titles are also misleading. Fictions or novels dominate the titles followed by poetry, novella and/or short stories. Books of articles, erudition and scholarship are few and far between. Popular science fictions are not an alternative to serious scientific studies, research, experiment and innovation. Dearth of such books is all too conspicuous.
If a select band of people claims to appreciate modern poetry, there is no reason that the enormous number of titles on poetry get published on the occasion of the book fair stand any chance of becoming commercially viable. True, the time now is hostile to literature but at least some blames should be shared by all involved with the book or publication industry. Many aspiring authors get their books published notwithstanding their below par quality. How this happens borders on the scandalous.
It is time writers and poets also went for serious introspection. The book fair has passed nearly half a century. All the brisk activities surrounding the fair focus on creating new writers and poets as well as producing something better than the established among them have ever done. But during this long period, how many masterpieces have they delivered? Can the readers mention anything comparable with Syed Walliullah's Lal Salu (translated as Tree Without Roots) Chander Amabasya, Kando Nadi Kando and Akhteruzzaman Elias's Chilekothar Sepai?
Of the hundreds of titles, the majority are hollow and deal with the superfluous. Had there been a creative genre of extraordinary talented minds, the long years of book fair would come of age. It has not. No novel or poetry book has been able to capture, on a grand scale, the imagination of the nation let alone the international readers. At least a few books should have received international recognition by this time. So far not one has been considered for Man Booker Prize, Man Asian Literary Prize and Commonwealth Literary Awards. A Nobel Prize for literature is an impossible proposition.
On that count writers of Bangladesh and Bengal origin writing in English have fared better. One of the constraints is obviously translation and reaching out to international readers. It is sad that even the liberation war could not inspire a magnum opus. Instead of numbers, creativity should concentrate on producing a handful of universally acclaimed masterpieces.