Farrukh Dhondy | On returning to bookshops; challenges on social media

Deccan Chronicle.  | Farrukh Dhondy

Opinion, Columnists

Will the cautionary lifting of Covid-19 restrictions bring book buyers back to the bookshops to savour the browsing amongst physical books?

Books for my pleasure, my obsessions, my research, my nostalgia… I want to encounter these in print on paper between hard or soft covers. (Representational Image/AFP)

“I must go down to the Shulabh again
To the Shulabh Shauchalay
A rupee a pee
Two for a poo
Everything short of a lay….”

From The Love Song of J. Alfred Coronanidhi, by Bachchoo

I must confess to a certain backwardness in this thrustingly forward era of the social media, of fantastic forms of communication, of the ability to find out in an instant, by means of a universally transmitted photograph, what a friend ate for dinner or breakfast that very day, etc… I confess that I don’t do Facefile, Tweettweet, Instapound, Trik Trok or any other of these worldwide obsessions.

On the plus side, I suppose these fantastic, even liberating technologies enable the Russian population to keep in touch with what their fascist government is doing in Ukraine.

Moreover, the present and succeeding generations are able to be in touch with loved ones and friends as never before.

But then there is also the plague of anonymous bullies — are they called Trolleys? — who abuse, threaten and blackmail others through the social media. There are people called “influencers” whose opinions, tastes and persuasions or example couldn’t get me to, shall we say, swap from corn to bran flakes for a single breakfast. Apart from these pretenders who trade on the gullibility of the vain, there are also self-appointed Aristotles who churn out daily gibberish, conceitedly deluding themselves that it’s “philosophy”.

My last victims in this diatribe, gentle reader, are those zillions who think others are, or should, be interested in what they ate or a pose of their pet cat or dog. That’s a form — alas universal! — of idleness.

I don’t apologise from staying away from all the above, but what I should perhaps feel ambivalent about is the fact that I have never read a book on my computer screen. I think they are called e-books. The reason I mention this is because as a writer of books myself I regularly receive notices from the publishers of my books about how many copies have been sold and what monies they have earned me through the doleful percentages that publishers pay their writers. Recently all these notices of income list the number of e-books that have been “sold” or downloaded or whatever and what sum of money has been paid into my account as a result.

Should I feel guilty about never having bought a book in the e-book form? I am not averse to reading things on the computer screen. After all, one of my jobs is as an editorial consultant to a very popular Web series platform which regularly sends me scripts in English, Roman Hindi and Devnagari to read. I read these diligently. They are often very interesting, but it’s work. Books for my pleasure, my obsessions, my research, my nostalgia… I want to encounter these in print on paper between hard or soft covers.

The easy answer is that I grew up with that form in which reading existed. Yes, there is a visceral attachment to books as physical tangible things. It may be attached to the subconscious memory of haunting, in my boyhood, a library in Pune (then Poona) called the Albert Edward Institute. It was a decrepit building on the veranda of which old men gathered every day to read the battened-down free newspapers and to which my friends and I paid a rupee a month to borrow books from the two-rooms-full of neglected dusty shelves — books by Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens and then Zane Grey, Erle Stanley Gardner and someone called Marie Corelli. We read without distinction or any kind of critical discrimination.

When we had money to spare, we would browse the shelves in Manney’s bookshop next to the West End cinema in Pune cantonment. The fragrance of gathered books was mildly addictive…

But is there another reason, something darker, some unacknowledged fear that the printed book may, as the verbally transmitted epic or the monk-calligraphed parchment did, be supplanted by the ethereal form — and so disappear? In the UK, the bookshop is battling for survival.

Lenin had said that one capitalist swallows another and Waterstones, the big bookstore chain of Britain, has just swallowed Blackwell’s of Oxford and Heffer’s of Cambridge, having previously acquired Foyle’s of London, Hatchards and numerous other not-so-legendary names. It could be interpreted as an inevitable consolidation against the threat from Amazon, which now sells 50 per cent of all books sold in the UK.

Will the cautionary lifting of Covid-19 restrictions bring book buyers back to the bookshops to savour the browsing amongst physical books in preference to tapping their computer keys to be annoyed by recalcitrant websites? There are certainly indications that the return to some kind of “normality” has affected or restored behavioural patterns.

For instance, in the first three months since the lifting of some Covid-19 restrictions, 1.5 million UK households cancelled their video subscriptions.

Perhaps Waterstones is on to eroding the 50 per cent of book sales that Amazon claims today. I must further confess (You haven’t turned into a Catholic, have you? —Ed) that in the last two years I haven’t been into a bookshop and have done all my book buying through Amazon.

I do still have a £100 voucher from Daunt Books as a result of some talk I gave there three years ago. Daunt is also owned by Waterstones and though I am not basically in sympathy with monopolies, I now have no option but to haunt Daunt.