When American talk show host Oprah Winfrey started her on-air reading club in 1997, she said she “wanted to get the country reading” and that is just what she did, resulting in high book sales, much press and a lot of debate regarding her book choices. Oprah’s Book Club titles ranged from unknown first time writers to Nobel Laureates but what started as a literary sponsorship soon took on another role: the club enhanced literacy in the long-term, keeping people reading and all the while creating an intimacy between readers of all kinds.
This was neither surprising nor strange. Providing space to talk books with like-minded people, book clubs help with understanding other people and cultures, explains literary critic and writer Muneeza Shamsie. A book club member since the late 1990s, what she finds interesting about reading in a group is that “someone might see something that you’ve missed”.
As the head of Oxford University Press in Pakistan and co-founder of the Karachi Literature Festival, Ameena Saiyid says that “the first thing one wants to do once they have read a book is discuss it.” For Canadian novelist and psychologist Keith Oatley, a book club culture means “sharing something that is intimate”. And then it could assume larger significance. Book clubs, he explains, help “members increase their intimacy with others, and perhaps take a small step in moving society closer”.
Saiyid concurs. She believes any activity encouraging reading must be embraced because it generates healthy debate, bringing positive values to society. “Reading exposes us to different perspectives. In book clubs, we respect and listen to a point of view and contribute constructively, something that society needs in general,” Saiyid says. This is what happened when Iranian author Azar Nafisi’s seven best students came to her home each week in Tehran to discuss books. In Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Story of Love, Books and Revolution, one reads about the inspirational bonding between Nafisi and her reading group, where the lives of her young students are linked to the characters in the books that they read, allowing them to discover themselves.
In the early part of this year, the Herald discovered similar facts about reading groups in Pakistan: although little known, they offer an intimate culture where contact through reading becomes a significant source of understanding each other. “We don’t gossip but a lot of personal material comes up related to literature and we have bonded over books,” says Ismaa Khan who founded a ten-member book club in Karachi a year ago.
Saamiya Raazi, a doctor working as a health coach and nutritionist, explains how her personal experience has proven that ‘cultural’ bonding works. She realised how little she knew about the lives of her other friends until she read with them as part of the Lahore-based Lit Wits book club that has been around for three years. “Reading about the trials and tribulations of others makes one much more patient with their own bumbling country,” she explains.
Aysha Raja, owner of The Last Word bookshop in Lahore (with a smaller presence in Karachi) believes compassion and empathy have roots in fiction and so books explore the human condition. Without reading, she says, “we hinder our understanding of one another”. She wonders how people who can but don’t read beyond the daily newspapers will ever become contributing members of society. “God help anyone who doesn’t read.”
Michael Dana Gioia, an American writer, critic and poet who is also a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts in the US is of the opinion that book clubs perform important social functions in that they assist in understanding people and cultures. Gioia tells the Herald that “book clubs are a social response by readers to society … individuals create book clubs as small, ‘ideal’ social units that allow them to share and discuss the things that matter to them”. Book clubs, he says, are not about “just books but intelligent discussion and shared cultural values.” He, therefore, sees them as being not simply about literature but also about friendship.
Understanding and learning about people through fiction enhances mental stimulation and empathy making readers more socially intelligent. Karachi-based neurologist Rashid Jooma explains reading develops brain capacity reducing the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Jooma not one for Suduko and preferring to read says “it is important to work on our own intrinsic imagination because it makes our brains grow more powerful, increasing our ability to make associations in the mind.”Reading helps with this exercise — because “book clubs expose us to reading, perceptions and different points of view; I wish I had the time to be in one,” Jooma adds.
Sania Dalal, a young lawyer who runs a children’s book club in Karachi as a non-profit venture, remembers visiting the British Council as a child and engaging in creative activities around the book James and the Giant Peach.
Nowadays at the Literary Junction, her one-year-old book club, children are exposed to novels off the beaten track of vampire love stories and Hannah Montana. “They have read A Little Princess, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and some of the older children have just finished The Alchemist — after which they engage in creative exercises related to the book.” Exposing them to such titles is “about getting them to engage their minds”, says Dalal.
For parents who complain that children growing up inPakistancannot experience out of the box adventures due to the country’s security conditions, book clubs like the Literary Junction may offer an alternative. Their impact is far from being one-way. “[It] has brought a profound change to my life, giving me a sense of responsibility; mentoring young children through literature is not something I can take lightly,” she adds.
Others, like Syed Jehangeer Ali believe that book clubs help delve into one’s creative side when daily routines can get mundane. Ali joined a book club in Islamabad needing a change in perspective that took him away from his routine of writing reports. With its quirky title, One Step Away from Getting Cats, a book club with members, like Ali from the development sector, focuses on the use of contemporary literature to help devise problem-solving tactics.
While there is a consensus among readers that book clubs are worthwhile in their purpose, does it matter what kind of books are read? When the founding member of a book club, became specific about the type of books that should be read, suggesting political narrative to members, what the happened was that “no one was reading, the pleasure had gone and people were backing off; when people stopped responding, the founding member left the group,” explains a member of this particular book club.
Others try to leave out potentially controversial subjects. Members of Khan’s book club, mostly women who are students or are working from home, “read diversely [but the] only books we avoid are [the ones] based on religion and politics.”
At The Second Floor, a café in Karachi that also doubles as a venue for literary and cultural events, every second Sunday, discussions around classical Urdu poetry are organized as a way to deepen understanding and appreciation of the genre.
Senior journalist Ghazi Salahuddin, who often looks at people to see if they are reading, endorses reading in regional languages. When visiting Brazil, he discovered that every bookshop had literature in Portuguese, the local language. Salahuddin says he even found a copy of Pakistani author, Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangos, translated in the local language. “By reading in a foreign language, we hinder our intellectual emancipation,” he says.
Procuring books is yet another challenge inPakistan. “The main challenge I face is getting hold of books and when we do [get hold of them] they are expensive,” Dalal explains.
Finding recently published titles in Pakistan remains challenging for readers. Khan and company have to employ a number of methods to overcome this problem. They order off Amazon, borrow books, buy them on trips abroad or go through the stalls at Karachi’s Sunday bazaar looking for treasures such as The Count of Monte Cristo.
Shamsie, however, believes things are already changing for the better. She has seen a huge difference over the past decade in book trade. In the late 1990s, books would be bought abroad with the dearth of bookshops and no online purchase options available. “In those days all you could find were bestsellers; award-winning books were limited and hardly available,” Shamsie says. Today, there are more booksellers stocking more than they would in the past.
Other options include online reading sources that are rapidly gaining popularity. When The Readers Club, an online facility for exchanging books and discovering new titles, began in 2008 with 50 titles, no one thought this site would store over 4,000 books in just four years. Kitabain.com, another site associated with The Readers Club, started in 2010 and last year had 70,000 books, drawing in titles from booksellers and private collectors. Usman Siddiqui, who along with Jawad Yousuf founded the club, feels that e-books, however, have a long way to go before they become mainstream in Pakistan. “The high cost of digital devices [for accessing and reading books online], for example the kindle, is a deterrent for mass adoption, at least in the near-term.”
If books are there for the taking and there are people getting together to form reading clubs or groups – there should be greater support and recognition for this activity. “Presently a platform where all book clubs can connect is required,” says Raazi. We need more and diverse books and need to encourage reading and writing as a pastime. Perhaps, then this will be a legacy to pass onto our children,” she adds.
Matthew MacMillan, a teacher of social sciences at the Lahore American School, feels that book clubs may, or at least should, help expand reading habits. “It’s sad that in Pakistan reading is somewhat limited to the elite,” he points out. “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could sit down and talk with people from all spheres and build bridges over the discussion of a book?” he asks.
MacMillan invokes the French connection. “From the salons of the French Enlightenment, we know how powerful discussion can be.” These salons were not just a way to pass time for the bored elite, they were hubs for generating knowledge and emanating intellectual discourses — something Pakistanis in dire need of today.