Books have come to stay, so have readers

Shihab Sarkar | Published: March 07, 2019 21:26:26


The educated general people of Bangladesh have still kept alive their love for books. Notwithstanding the ever increasing onslaught of virtual reading media, their passion for books shows little sign of waning. It was proved once again this year by spirited rush of visitors to the month-long book fair called Amor Ekushey Gronthomela in Dhaka. That this extraordinary love nurtured by people, both young and elderly, is no sham has been vividly evident in the fair. The feeling stemmed not from any short-lived craze. It resulted from a prolonged reading culture developed at individual levels. The official day of the fair's closure on February 28 and the two previous days had witnessed rain and strong winds not familiar to the season. The inclement weather could not dissuade people from coming to the fair ground in the city's Suhrawardy Udyan, the venue of the fair.

The fair's two extended days, sunny and mildly cool, experienced a spectacular assemblage of visitors. Those two days also witnessed the climax of the book lovers' enthusiasm. In these times of intellectual recreation online, book lovers coming to fairs braving drizzle and gusts comprise an exceptional view. Of the 30 days, only one evening at the Ekushey Book Fair experienced complete disruption. The rest 29 days featured continuously increasing numbers of readers. Although the greater segment of the fair-goers came to the venue to move around, watch books and take part in gossip sessions, a sizeable section was highly serious. Their love for books was seen in their style of choosing and enquiring about books. Like in the past years, they would be seen avoiding the fair's rush hours and crowded stalls. In fact, these readers constituted the essence of the country's largest book fair.

That the habit of reading still survives among a section of people in a least advanced society carries elements of wonder. In many respects, reading books for pleasure seems anachronistic to communities still engaged in the struggle for a decent survival. Bangladesh can, thus, be included among the exceptions. The tradition of enjoying reading in this land can be traced back to more than a thousand year. Although it is far behind the scholastically and culturally advanced civilisations, the land can take rational pride in its era of leaf-made 'punthis' and scrolls. It is especially the 'punthis' that contained a vast volume of its folk literature and lots of its historical documents. The use of hand-made paper among the enlightened circles did not lag much behind. Many historians ascribe the use of crude paper soon after the palm leaves to the invention in China of an early form of writing material, later known as 'paper'.

The evolution of paper witnessed a systematic evolution in Near East (later West Asia) and northern Africa. Mesopotamia and Assyria in the pre-Christ area can claim the credit for inventing written scripts, and clay tablets on which to carve them. The most famous of these works is the Code of Law by Babylonian king Hammurabi. The tablet finally took the shape of a 7-foot basalt stele. The era of clay tablets began approximately in the 3rd millennium BC. Later, archaeologists found over 20,000 tablets at a site called Nineveh. The venue of the tablets finally emerged as an archive and library of the kings of Assyria. The most significant development that took place in the process of books' emergence was the invention of writing sheets in ancient Egypt. The writing material, basically a reed called papyrus, would grow abundantly in the Nile Delta. The end material used to be found after extracting the marrow from the stems of the papyrus reed. A gruelling process was normally followed to get the primitive paper. It included humidification, pressing, drying, gluing and cutting. The best product would be used for sacred writings. Now how the papyrus 'paper' was used in the production of books? History has it that papyrus books were, in fact, scrolls of several finished sheets pasted together. The first such book was made public during the reign of King Neferikare Kakai of the Fifth Dynasty (2500 BC). Papyrus began to be exported to Greece and Rome in the later times.

Parchment, the closest object resembling modern paper, took the place of papyrus around 3rd century BC. In the early stage it would come from the skins of certain animals.

As an agent of radical changes in the progress of human civilisations, books passed through eventful eras. The way in which a reader can pick his or her favourite books today was beyond imagination in the past. For them to be printed on a mass scale, books have had to wait a few centuries. One or two books in a whole region in certain periods would be seen catering to their readers. Later, books would make rounds among the literate elite, with authorship or copyright issues still a utopian dream. With the authors' exclusive right to their creations out of vogue, it was the scribes or copy-persons who would elicit more respect in society than the authors. Though it sounds ironical, a scribe earning money and the author remaining content with just glory was the norm in the past. Book production and publication has taken its present form since the medieval times --- especially after the invention of the printing presses. The first such press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in Germany in 1455. It was followed by the printing machine of William Caxton in England in 1475. After the introduction of printed scriptures and other publications to society, the medieval Europe found itself prepared to welcome a completely new era. Due to the easy availability of books and their rising circulation, the fast-progressing world virtually broke with the past. The developed and enlightened empires, and also their colonies, appeared to have found the right key to open the myriads of vaults containing the treasure-troves of knowledge. From then on, they have been familiar with the pleasures of connecting minds through reading.

In time, issues like economics, censorship, copyright etc entered the book world. In the 20th century, notwithstanding their exclusive and semi-hallowed status, books bred a new class --- publishers. They would print, prepare and market noted authors' books to earn profit from their sales. The writers did not have objections, as they were given a certain percentage of profits in the form of royalty. The tradition of book fairs can be considered an extension of the combination of reading pleasure and commerce. It is indeed unique. Unlike stage plays or movies, a book is essentially a creative product of one single person. In this context, books deserve to be placed above all items of the arts. Their closest relatives could be paintings. But then again the economic aspect of art works is different. In the earlier times, painters could sell their works directly to a connoisseur. In the modern times, they perform the job in collaboration with art galleries or dealers. Like with publishers, the galleries keep for themselves a certain amount of profit accrued from the sale of a painting.

Coming to books, they have undergone mind-boggling changes in all their aspects. They range from the ways of writing, publication, readership, sales promotion to reaching them to the interested readers. Needless to mention, the online medium nowadays plays a major role in the rise of readership and sales promotion of books. For its part, Bangladesh can still afford to be a part of the marketing of books and their readership in the traditional style. Despite the growing pressure, there are few signs that the country's book world will give in to the online world anytime soon. It's mainly because Bangladesh can reasonably boost of the classical style in which its books have evolved through centuries. In the meantime, the country can also utilise the online medium as it has heartily welcomed the digital breakthroughs in all aspects of life. But the readers of Bangladesh are not expected to part with paper books completely, nor with the seemingly archaic book fairs.   

shihabskr@ymail.com

 

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