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Reading in the time of a contagion

One of the most awaited moments for those handling book review pages in newspapers and magazines is the annual catalogues of various publishers. They are elegantly designed, with special attention to fonts, and announce the titles that will highlight the upcoming year. For 2020, on offer were books by Thomas Piketty, Pankaj Mishra, Shashi Tharoor, Perumal Murugan, Romila Thapar, Ira Mukhoty, the prolific Ruskin Bond, and a host of volumes on the U.S. in an election year. There were biographies of an old emperor (Akbar), a shrewd politician (Muhammad Ali Jinnah), India’s first woman doctor (Anandibai Joshi) and a river (Brahmaputra).

But with China reporting a cluster of pneumonia cases late in 2019, the new year began ominously. By March, when a stringent lockdown was announced in India to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, life as we knew it was changing forever. With people falling sick, others forced indoors and the economy in a tailspin, it was inevitable that publishing, like every other cog in the wheel, would have to brace for hard times.

Also read | 12 objects that got us through the lockdown

Uncertainty ruled the next three months. As schedules began to go awry for publishers, with printing presses shut, a shortage of hands and commissioning issues, the worry was that there would not be easy access to books for reading and review. With books not listed in the “essential” category, distribution was hit hard. Big wine and cheese launches became a thing of the past and were replaced by livestreams and webinars. The digital connect ensured the flow of material as PDFs, that included several books on the dreaded virus, but reviewers complained of weary eyes and said they missed the rustle of pages.

For the publishing world, however, there are other more pressing anxieties. The financial impact for an industry already struggling for various reasons will be terrible. The independent bookstore round the corner is facing closure, even as the might of Amazon becomes stronger. Struggling bookstores are already offering discounts way beyond their means, and home delivery.

Then there are other challenges, from the overriding trend of a gradual decline in reading for pleasure, and the shift to digital. India may be a population of 1.6 billion, but how many have access to the digital world for reading? COVID-19 laid bare the glaring inequities. The sale of e-books may have risen during the lockdown but it comprises a small portion of the publishing world in India and won’t make up for losses.

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Ask anyone in the publishing industry what Indians prefer reading, and there’s no clear answer. At the moment, books on health, economy, politics, religion, sport, romance and thrillers are “doing well”, though no one likes to define what it means in terms of sales. But the genres provide a clue to a reader’s mind. Why else would there be a renewed wish to read George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984? Or all the sci-fi novels on contagion? Writers around the world are already keeping journals of the 2020 virus. In a recent literary anthology, Mario Vargas Llosa said when we cannot understand what is happening around us, as a society we turn to books to see if they offer any answers. Will this lead to novels like Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year? Time will tell and readers will keep an eye.

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2020 8:31:35 PM |

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