April 23 is acknowledged by UNESCO as World Book Day. Typically, you’d imagine it as another date for the PR machinery to lap up, and create a buzz about. But we aren’t quite sure about this one. It’s a bummer, going by the no-show in the form of the listings that tend to flood the inbox prior to Father’s Day, Smiley Day, Hug Your Dog Day…get the picture, right?
Barring the odd books mela in one of the city’s malls (strange bedfellows, this) we’ve been spared the email overkill. But this time around, instead of relief, it made for another reminder of the dwindling position that books and reading seem to be having in our daily conscience. Till the time that this column went to print, we didn’t read of either bookstore chains or standalone stores announce or create any sort of hype over the day – contests, offers, special discounts and the like. Forget the annual sales and the whopping discounts that take place for the rest of the year, surely, this one day in the year could have been devoted to the book and all its million virtues.
It’s when one must ask the question — strictly on its own merit, is the book fading out of fashion as a crowd-puller? Most book chains are pale recreations of what they began as — what with toys, stationery, music and film buys and other paraphernalia taking more shelf space than books. The few that have stuck to their guns are finding the going tough — expectedly. The lack of choices that one often encounters in several bookstores pushes one even further to take the e-shop route. This adds to the drop in footfalls, further pressurising owners during number crunching and balance sheet-browsing time. The logic might sound simple — bring in the variety, cajole the reader with incentives and offers, and the numbers will increase. Yet, having a pulse on the reader’s changing mind, and this most bookstore owners will agree with, is probably the toughest task in such Kindle-friendly times.
Even public libraries are drying up with regularity. A few days back, this newspaper carried a Page 1 story about the abysmal state of Asia’s largest sports library. It’s a telling reminder of the condition in most public reading spaces. Often, the word ‘public’ defeats its very purpose where ‘members-only’ enclaves with colonial rules make it tough for most die-hard readers to avail of their collections. The upkeep of children’s libraries in the city remains a continuous challenge too.
Little wonder then, that parents are still seeking answers on how to keep their lil’ ones away from app and Playstation obsessions.
In the larger picture, beyond just this World Book Day no-show, the city could surely do with more than the odd literature festival, book fair or reader-friendly offers throughout the year. The reader in the city might appear to be in a tearing hurry most of the time, but given the option, he or she would love to slow down and engage in some much-needed TLC over that wish list of favourite paperbacks or delightful open sessions with popular authors from India and beyond. It’s a call that bookstore owners and book-loving magnates need to think about, for the benefit of a city that deserves so much more than merely titles being named after it.