“I never read fiction,” says the superior young man, clutching his copy of Awaken the Giant Within or some such management gibberish. “After all, what’s the point of a book if it doesn’t teach you anything?” What indeed? “Fiction is not real, no?” adds another girl, holding her copy of The Secret “I only like to read real stories to improve myself.”
As a journalist and teacher at several journalism colleges, I meet many young people who can’t see the point in reading for fun. Reading, they believe, is solely for personal development, self-improvement or acing a job interview. Most write entirely in SMSese, have never read anything beyond Mills and Boon or Paulo Coelho, and yet describe themselves as “creative” or “expressive”. Reading these days is apparently seen as a grim chore to be endured, like exercising or eating broccoli. It’s good for us, but hell, it’s hard to do.
The modern attitude to reading, I find, is spawning a generation of self-absorbed, unimaginative clones who can barely string together a grammatical sentence. I see basic errors of grammar, spelling and syntax from people who should know better but don’t. Here’s an unedited sentence from one of my writing students at a top Mumbai college, ‘India has Mnay cast, different languages, different religions and so Indian culture is prosperus.’ ‘I want 2 b a writer. What 2 read?’ emailed another journalism student. ‘Everything you can,’ I suggested, but this left him befuddled. ‘Wht is a gd bk? Pl rcmnd,’ came the plaintive and badly-spelled response.
“Reading is such a good habit, no?” says the mother of a four-year-old I know. “So good for GK.” “What about just for fun?” I say, but she is already talking about the list of educational books she is buying for her child. “How do you teach your kids to read? Mine is just not interested,” says another mother, arms full of flash cards and charts.
I am not surprised. Neither would I be if I was taught with joyless flash cards and wall charts. I see mushrooming reading groups and clubs misleadingly called ‘The Joy of Reading’ and so on for ‘reluctant readers’. These adopt an almost concentration-camp like approach to reading. ‘All children must read the book, write a 500-word summary, then answer questions 1-50,’ says one club brochure. Reluctant readers? More likely children who have never been allowed to have fun while reading.
The increasing competitiveness of the educational system is also to blame. Studying several hours a day for a competitive exam leaves no time for reading, or God forbid, to actually enjoy doing so. Reading is seen solely as a tool for improving spelling and punctuation when it should be the other way around. Most children are taught by teachers who don’t enjoy reading themselves. End result: they view reading as an indigestible health tonic forced down their gullets.
Parents are equally to blame. We can demonise PSPs and Nintendo for kids not reading, but ultimately we have to take responsibility. Computer games don’t just walk into a home; someone’s buying them.
The craze for ‘educational’ books is also ruining the neighbourhood bookshop. Bookshops are full of ‘informative’ books for children, a convenient way to disguise poorly written, poorly produced, sub-standard writing. Or, the books are mostly vacuous adaptations of TV serials like Hannah Montana or Mary Kate and Ashley, in a desperate attempt to lure TV addicts. In the adults section, the massive self-help and management books section dwarfs everything else. There is a depressing sameness to self-help books. Many of them are bulleted or summarised as if readers are too dim to appreciate anything unless it’s in bite-size segments. A steady diet of these is enough to turn anyone’s mind to pap.
There was a time when bookstores were manned by kindly elderly gentlemen, fans of Dickens and RK Narayan, able to find anything you wanted. Now they are staffed by young men who would rather be selling cellphones. They can locate Chetan Bhagat and Paulo Coelho , but not much else. Only the other day I walked into a bookstore and asked for Orhan Pamuk, to be met with the blank response, “Is that a management book?”
I realised how rare reading for pleasure has become when I attempted to start a book club by advertising in the local newspaper. I got a lot of calls, but not from readers. Instead, most calls came from people who wanted to know what “other activities” I was offering. “You mean all you do is read a book and talk about it?” asked one disappointed man incredulously.
I remember childhood reading Dr Seuss aloud with my father, savouring the words of The Cat in the Hat. I remember long summer holidays reading Agatha Christies and the Chalet School series, dreaming about midnight feasts and pony rides. Then came the khadi-clad college days, endless hours spent analysing Ayn Rand, Harper Lee and F Scott Fitzgerald. Somehow I don’t think a PSP or Nintendo will arouse quite the same happy memories. Even worse is the thought of a joyless future where everyone is reading The Secret or Eat Pray Love.
Perhaps, no one cares about memories in this dog-eat-dog world. Still, talking about those all-important jobs, we are now beginning to see what awaits a generation of non-readers. No one should be reading just to get a job, but those who have given up on reading may find it harder to get one in the future. Employers everywhere are complaining that graduates are unemployable because they have spent too much time cramming textbooks and too little reading anything else. A recent Nasscom survey said that nearly 75 per cent of engineering graduates and a whopping 90 per cent of graduates from second-tier management schools are unemployable because they are inarticulate, have poor communication skills, low confidence and no knowledge of the world around them. You don’t acquire an imagination, develop confidence or learn how to talk impressively by cramming model papers or sitting for coaching classes. That’s something Generation Non-Readers may find out the hard way.