Of booksellers and librarians

Muhammad Hamid Zaman

<p>I am a bit of an old school when it comes to books. I like to visit the bookstores &mdash; you know the real ones &mdash; not just the ones on my computer.</p>

I also try to strike up a conversation with the booksellers. I have been extremely fortunate that my work has taken me to amazing places around the world, and some of the best suggestions about what to read, and how to appreciate the subtleties of local culture and politics have come from booksellers.

From Cape Town to Beirut, Rio to Amman, Accra to Zanzibar, Melbourne to Ho Chi Minh City, booksellers have made my life richer — and I am grateful to every one of them.

With no idea what I might end up buying, except the desire to come out richer, I entered a bookstore in one of the posh areas of Lahore last week.

This particular bookstore apparently had reopened after a break and there was much excitement about it on social media. Some called it the best bookstore in Lahore. I was excited.

These days, noon might be the crack of dawn when it comes to business. It was well past noon when I entered the bookstore and I was the first customer. I asked the booksellers (and there were two of them) if they had any books by local authors — from Lahore, or even Pakistan — fiction or non-fiction. I was hoping to get peppered by questions, about my preferences, genre, or other questions that might make my interests more specific.

Instead, I got a blank look. Both of the booksellers looked around and couldn’t find anything. Then one of them asked me if I would be interested in fiction. I got excited — and said sure, why not.

One of them then brought a bunch of books, none of them were written by Pakistani authors, and not one of them was on Pakistan. These were books by Turkish authors, and in one case by a British author, which were not even remotely connected to Pakistan in their subject matter.

More disappointing was the fact that in this “best bookstore in Lahore” there was not a single book in Urdu. I was really heartbroken.

The phenomenon of booksellers not having a clue about books is not limited to Lahore alone. In Islamabad, I had felt a similar pain at the city’s prominent bookstores. In this backdrop, the discussion on what might happen to the iconic Urdu Bazaar Karachi is all the more painful. It is one of the few places (the other being Urdu Bazaar Lahore) where booksellers have read books, know what is in their stock and can have a discussion about the content. The anti-encroachment drive should not deprive us of what little is left of our relation with books.

Booksellers are not the only ones whose relationship to books is getting more and more tenuous. The librarians at universities and colleges are also no longer interested in books.

The extremely troubling misconception that there is no more a need for library in the era of Google is not only present among ill-informed elite, it is also getting to the librarians themselves who think that their job is redundant.

While universities that are vested in research in the US, Europe, Australia, Latin America and China are investing in libraries that create an enabling environment for research, scholarship, archival work and leisure reading, universities in Pakistan are considering library expenses as frivolous.

Archival work, engagement with rich historical and cultural literary material is getting more difficult, and the libraries are increasingly staffed by people who might as well be doing anything but working with books.

At a time when history has so much to teach us, the knowledge of our past and present is critical for our survival, and creativity is stifled through heavy handedness, libraries need to be open and expanding, the environment welcoming and inclusive and most importantly staffed by those who inspire us to think big, create boldly and aim for the stars.