Time to identify more bibliophiles

From Saurav Bora

Amid a declining habit of reading books among the youth in the technology-driven modern day, there is still hope for ‘physical or paper’ books, if the sole instance of the Rs 4-crore record sales proceeds in the recently concluded 21st Northeast Book Fair at the AEI Playground in Guwahati is an indication.
As it is, the fair organised by the All Assam Publishers and Booksellers Association has this year attracted over 2.5lakh people from the length and breadth of the region in just 12 days, quite a contrast from the below 1lakh visitors when it was incepted in 1997, at Judges Field, right in the heart of Guwahati.
“A positive trend this year was the overwhelming presence of young readers, including school and college students, at the fair. The ‘Kitap porho ahok’ (Let’s read books) campaign led by academics and distinguished citizens across the state in September-October this year did kindle interest among the Android generation. But I also feel that the old-school readers still have a knack for touch-and-feel reading,” Dhiraj Goswami, general secretary of the association, said.
Last year, the book fair had recorded a sale of Rs 2.5 crore whereas the same in previous year (2017) was Rs 3.10 crore.
Shillong-based writer Ankush Saikia, who has authored books such as The Girl From Nongrim Hills, Remember Death and More Bodies Will Fall, et al, said, “I think e-readers and book apps on smart phones are complimentary to physical books. It is encouraging to see total sales at the NE Book Fair rising from last year.”
Another factor which roused positivity and genuine interest for books among the youth was heart-throb and singing sensation Zubeen Garg.
“As our brand ambassador he had appealed to the young people to read Assamese books and shun alcohol. As a matter of fact, Zubeen has supported us when the government had a plan to stop organisation of the fair last year,” Goswami said.
“Besides, we have increased our public outreach activities and student interaction programmes during the fair. The outcome was there for all to see with about Rs 2.5crore worth Assamese books and Rs 1.5crore books in other languages selling in 12 days,” he added.
The book fair this year was inaugurated by Vice President of India Venkaiah Naidu who spoke about the library movement and said every village should have a library.
Another encouraging trend was the positive feedback from students of two schools in regard to library book reading. “We had come to know of a teacher opening a public library in Chamata area in Nalbari district. If college and school teachers think in this manner, we can sincerely popularize paper book reading among the young generation,” said Goswami.
On the challenges posed to the fair, Goswami said, “This was the 21st edition. The response has snowballed since 1997 when it was held at Judges Field. A few years later, it shifted to the AEI playground at Chandmari. There have been occasions when attempts were made by sections to shift the fair to the outskirts but thanks to support from academics and citizens, the fair has remained in the heart of the city.”
There was also a time of uncertainty, he said, when a decision had to be made regarding the timing of the fair which more or less coincided with the book fair organised by the Publication Board, Assam.
“But that has been sorted now with our fair scheduled in the first half of November every year and the other fair held in the second half of December every year,” Goswami said.
Regarding book fairs not gaining popularity in some other states of the North East, he said lack of publishers of vernacular language books could be one factor, apart from greater online sales, lesser readers given the relatively smaller population.
Books on political issues, infiltration, foreigners, student politics and the Assam Agitation, including six books published by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), received healthy response from all sections of readers at the fair. Moreover, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Nobel laureates Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, also received warm response from readers during the event.
On the book reading environment gaining meaningful momentum, academic Dr Amarjyoti Choudhury said, “It is extremely good news for us. Our readers are always in search of good books and such an event provides a good platform to them.”
“The people of Assam have now become aware of the crises that befall our culture, literature and other sectors. So, everyone wants to know in detail about these crises, which in turn results in the increase in the sale of books,” he added.
Assam DGP Kuladhar Saikia, who is also a distinguished writer, said, “Parents and senior members of society must lead by example in making book reading a part of the culture. There is no point blaming the youngsters, if the senior members of society don’t do enough to promote book reading in their families.”
Organisers of the fair now want to raise the bar by inviting big international publishing houses, for which they have sought government help for timely interventions.
The association also plans to meet Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal over the issues such as waiving off the rent of the AEI field, which is Rs 15,000 per day and extending a certain grant-in-aid to the NE Book Fair. To hold the event, the organisers book the playground for close to a month.
The association is also pushing for a state central library in Assam to encourage book reading.
The success of the book fair has prompted the All Assam Publishers and Booksellers Association to look beyond Guwahati and hold similar fairs across the region’s capitals.
“We have seen the high and lows of the fair over the past two decades. But positive feedback and an even greater response from visitors to the fair since the past three-four years have inspired us to think big after 21 years and take it to the other capital cities of the Northeast, starting with a fair at the District Library in Shillong in February next year,” he recently told The Shillong Times.
It is to be seen how far the organisation will be successful in Shillong and the result may be an indicator of the trend of reading in the region.

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