I was born in the world of books but then it was 71 years ago. The year was 1952 and the month was February, five days before police guns roared in the DU area and the date became both history and historic. The language movement was a very culture focused movement of the reading class. Although in 1952 it was a state language movement, people have morphed it into a mother language movement. This is both perceptual and politically convenient having a wider appeal. That makes it more visceral, more widely appealing and useful to mobilize anger and activism. And it did.
The movement has always been about culture as well and of the middle class. Peasants hardly required literary language for any transaction including culture as it rarely transgresses into official culture. For the middle class, educated and refined, books mattered. The most memorable products of 1952 were its real and produced memories and literary legacy.
A culture of 'songkolon'
One of the great signatures of this era is the 'Ekushe songkolon' produced next year and edited by Hasan Hafizur Rahman. It includes the leading names of many of the authors who created the literary -cultural landscape later. Thus Shamsur Rahman, Alauddin Al-Azad, Abu Zafar Obaidullah and many others are all there. It kicked off 'songkolon' culture and Ekushey magazines became the hallmark of observance later on.
It was so till only a decade or two back when earnest young people would publish and try to sell them to fairly reluctant people coming to pay homage to the martyrs at various memorials around the country.
The image of people walking bare feet as a sign of respect all the way to the national Shaheed Minar with bouquets and banners is here but the difference though subtle is here too. It's the sound of the smartphone camera clicking selfies. So the events of 1952 are remembered but with some additions as we just mentioned. The digital reality is very much there in the literary landscape.
Books and reading and writing
I grew up in a world of books and I was a bookaholic, a compulsive reader. My parents gifted me my first book when I was three years old - which else but "Aboltabol" by Sukumar Roy - and I couldn't even read Bangla then. By the time I was four I was reading various illustrated comics /books voraciously. It didn't stop after that and I have read on and on.
Many years later - 1969 - when we entered college after school, I met fellow book lovers and we would compete with each other on reading books. We bought, borrowed and later wrote books including traveling the 'songkolon' route and selling them at the Shaheed Minar. In the end, many of us ended up as authors too, doing books on our own.
But is the world the same and can we expect books to dominate when words are served by other means?
Reading and writing in a digital world
Still sticking to myself, I remain an avid reader and writer. In fact I make a living as one so in my world, it's all about words. I read every day for more hours than I care to count and write hundreds if not thousands of words too.
As a researcher, I also need to use references which mean reading books that are not available in Bangladesh in many cases and are stuck inside no-entrance libraries or just not in print. But they are no problem for me because the internet provides me access to those and many more. PDF books are the best thing to happen to my life after the discovery of insulin which keeps me alive.
I can Google for any information I want and get several options. Using internet libraries I can tap into data caches not known to exist, not to mention regular sources as well. I can exchange info and edit my books online.
Right now I am working on an Encyclopedic history of 1971 and my research assistants work online with me and edit, record, add, delete and do everything that is needed to make the book project work. I did a similar book in 2007 and it took years. This time with digital assistance, we will only take several months.
So are books in decline?
Books are a reservoir of words and information and so is the digital document. The options for getting information are many and more varied and convenient. They are also mostly free. It's more accessible and reading, editing and updating.
So what is the issue? It's that paper books are less read and people have a shorter attention span. They are prone to scrolling and are always in a hurry to get past the part that is less interesting but which may hold key information. And as it's easier to generate more info, more books are written of which not all are standard. There is no editing, no quality control of the many digital books. But the digital versions of paper books are fine.
It's a different world and millions more are consuming the world than they did before. The serious readers are far more than before no matter if they are using paper or digital books. But far more people are reading than perhaps the total population of 1952. There are many kinds of readers and in many spaces unlike 1952 when only the 'shushil' middle class read. And that is why we should welcome the world of digital books.
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