In the digital age, books fairs may seem to be a thing of the past. But books have always been a community affair
One of my earliest memories of Lahore is being taken to a mela where my father pointed to a table covered with books and asked me which ones I wanted to buy. Newly returned from Saudi Arabia, I found this ‘new’ way of buying books exciting. Long gone were the sanitised, air-conditioned sparkling malls that defined the privileged life of an expat. Buying books right off the street, it could not get cooler than this. This was the real deal.
Books in Pakistan, at least in Lahore, have always been a community affair. From the Pak Tea House to book fairs in Alhamra and later, Expo Centre, it was seen as one of the more acceptable public activities. Seeing people buzz around stalls like ants crawling around during the monsoon, it was more about the idea of emerging from the privacy of homes to having access to public space, and for a respectable reason – “I’m going to buy books”. The loftiness that accompanied that statement came from knowing no one could question such a noble social activity.
With the advent of dish television, a whole new form of entertainment opened and book reading as a pastime began to decline. MTV was cooler, The X-Files offered more excitement, and 90210 was more interesting. But book fairs chugged on in the hope that if the Walkman was being replaced by CD players, it didn’t stop people from listening to music, did it? People will still read books, no matter how many dish antennae channels entered the country.
But today in this digital age, do they stand a chance? Yes, they do. Covid caused a surge in book publishing and reading globally. In Pakistan, post Pulwama, the local publishing industry woke up with a jolt – now that the one market that still housed Pakistani authors had closed off, it was officially easy to say nobody in the world wanted us. The reaction was, well if no one wants us, we’ve got to want ourselves. To say self-love was being practiced is not an understatement. Noble and nice female-led publishing houses popped up in Karachi and Lahore, and bookstore owners stepped in as well signing up authors left, right and centre.
Except. Books are a community-oriented activity.
No one likes to read in solidarity and no one wanted to listen to authors talk about their books no matter what the snazzy Instagram posts promised or the validation offered by fancy promo cards with established literary organisations. Readers wanted to see the authors in person because, why not? They wanted to watch them live because a book was just one aspect of the experience. And they wanted to interact with the writers to tell them exactly what they thought of their hard work.
The influx of digital literary festivals did not do much either because now there was no respectable reason to venture out and, that too, during Covid. Fact was, people missed interacting with books, and bookstores offered a sanitised version, which was fast becoming tiresome.
Zahra Hameed’s book The Burning Champa (ZUKA BOOKS, 2021) was the evidence one needed that book fairs would always find a home in Pakistan. Held on a crisp morning, the air was buzzing with excitement. Would people come? Were we taking a risk? These thoughts filled my mind as I set up the table with her books. It was a very basic set up and the soft furnishings offered bursts of colour against the green lawn that was dotted with seating set out keeping safety measures in place.
As the place filled up, there was no denying the interaction between the readers and the books. The loving touches, the flickering of pages, the eyes lingering over the prose and the freedom to move in the outdoors with friends… pure joy!
The social interaction with the author which merged with the digital in the form of Instagram posts, live coverage via a digital media account and Facebook tagging indicated that the digital realm was entertainment, not a replacement for the community creation that came with activities such as book launches and especially, book fairs.
It was clear that while there was support for the author and her book, there was also a need to connect in person in an activity that did not demand anything from people. And what better way to connect than over a respectable reason, this time, a book of poetry?
Seeing a few children at the launch reminded me of myself all those years ago at my very first book fair. It was a brand new experience for them, to see and hear a book come to life. I’d like to think it was a cool activity for them.
And I would like to believe that for one brief moment during that afternoon they thought, I could do with more of this.
The writer is an author and publisher based in Lahore