But all agree that books are jostling for attention alongside TV and the Internet

The Madurai Book Fair at Tamukkam Grounds bustles with activity at 12 noon. Groups of school students crowd around the stalls as people stroll around the grounds.

Currently in its eighth year, the annual book fair has managed to draw huge crowds, mostly of keen readers and those who have come to soak up the atmosphere.

“We had a record number of nearly 40,000 people at the fair last Sunday,” says R.S. Shanmugam, president of the Booksellers and Publishers Association of South India.

Nevertheless, they all agree that books are jostling for public attention, alongside the Internet, TV, Facebook and other social media.

“I’ve seen parents refuse to let their children read books and asking them to concentrate on studies. By the time they realize their folly, their children are grappling with the inability to speak fluent English” says Usha Devi Shenbagaraj, who runs the Dheepam Lending Library in the city.

“The bulk of the library members comprises homemakers between the ages of 30 and 50,” she adds.

As many as seven lending libraries have closed down over the last few years in the city. But one library that has withstood the test of time and is still functioning with over 2000 members is the Central Library at Simakkal.

Says J Kannan, the librarian, “I’ve seen a rise in the number of college students who have taken to reading over the last few years.”

The need to get schoolchildren enthused about reading is growing by the day.

“Television viewing has eaten into the time meant for reading,” says Kanagadurga K, the librarian at the Pandian Nedunchezhian Corporation High School. “School libraries play an important part in inculcating an interest in reading books among children,” she adds.

The school is the only one in Madurai to have a fully functional, air-conditioned library with over 7000 books.

“We’ve made sure that the library is well maintained and the atmosphere appeals to the children. Once they take an interest and are comfortable in the place, I let them choose what they want to read,” explains Ms Kanagadurga.

Also stressing the role that schools play in kindling an interest in books, K Ramasamy, who manages the library at the Kendriya Vidyalaya School, Narimedu, says “Having a ‘library hour’ every week ensures that students in the school get to pick and take home at least two books.”

In tune with the changing times, the school is among the first in the district to have introduced an online library.

Scroll the page of the online library and there are detailed listings of the books, periodicals and newspapers available, as well as show books catering for competitive exams.

“The medium that most people read on has also changed and the online library ensures that students can have access to it even after school hours and also on the electronic devices of their choice,” Mr Ramasamy adds.

Invitations have been extended to schools across the city to bring students to the fair.

Says Deenu Shankar who manages a bookstall at the fair, “This is an opportunity for children to get a taste of various genre of books available in the market.”

“Books that have puzzles, brain teasers, general knowledge and crosswords are now popular among children,” she adds.

Other books that are selling fast at the fair include Tamil classics, poetry, re-telling of epics and English novels in the fantasy and romance genre.

“The demand and genre preference has varied over the years. While self-help books sold like hot cakes last year, biographies seem to be in demand at present,” said BAPASI President R.S. Shanmugam.

Many school librarians say that the bulk of the books bought for the library is from the annual book fair.

“I visit the book fair with a team of four teachers and students and we buy books for the library every year,” said Mr. Ramasamy. “There is a definite need for a full-fledged comprehensive bookstore selling English fiction and non-fiction in the city” he asserts.

Online bookstores like Flipkart too are fast gaining popularity.

“I buy English books for the library from online stores. There is a gist of the book available as well as user reviews, which can help one make an informed decision,” says Ms Usha Devi.

When asked about how better the habit of reading books could be encouraged and promoted, Mr. Shanmugam says “We function with the aim of turning the reading habit into a movement of sorts across rural and urban centres.”

Detailing an initiative of BAPASI, Mr. Shanmugam says that space has been allotted at the Connemera Library in Chennai for publishers and authors to display their books for sale.

“It is like a year-long mini book fair where information on books is constantly updated and people are aware of the new releases. We are trying to pitch for a similar initiative here,” he adds with a note of optimism.

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