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Books—endangered Species? With Vision 2030, There Is New Focus On Reading Habits

06 July 2016

By Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi

''NO books for me! I have given up on paperbacks long time ago! Today, few read them, especially among the young! Do you have digital versions? I only read on my iPad!,'' says a Jeddah bookshop visitor, where I had a book-signing night for the latest of my autobiography and history books. It was part of Jeddah Ramadan Festival in Balad (Jeddah downtown).

Librarian Abeer Abu-Sulaiman saw my disappointment, as the visitor left, and said: ''He is mistaken!'' She added: ''Children of all ages come all the time for free reading or shopping. And yes, they do read historical books.
A boy was so happy when he found a book about caliphs and sultans. I felt it was too heavy for him, but he said it was just what he was looking for! A little girl was excited about historical bedtime stories. She had bought a similar book before, and loved it!.''

As we were talking, two teenage girls came in. They went through my books, asked me smart questions, listened with much interest to stories about Jeddah and Saudi Arabia in the first half of the last century, then bought a couple of carefully chosen books. More readers of all ages came to shop, on the night of 28th Ramadan.

''We should have had you before the start of the last part of Ramadan. A week ago, it was so crowded! Bookworms came in droves. Most of our books are historical, in particular about Jeddah. This is a specialty, but still we are overwhelmed with people's interest and hunger for knowledge about their past. The young, even more than the older, are our best friends,'' explained Abeer.

So are we safe? Do we have to adapt to people's new tastes and trends? Should we publish versions of our books for the smart-device addicts? Or do we update bookshop design and services from the traditional cold shopping environment, to the warmer and friendlier one, like in Jeddah Bookshop?

These are critical questions that professional and publishers should find adequate answers to. As I see it, the message is more important than the form. Be it in paper or in digital ink; in text and picture or in multimedia with video and audio, a book is a book. The knowledge is there and the thought is there. We should provide knowledge in all formats and let readers choose what suit them best.

Friendly, encouraging environment is important, too. It helps to have services and events like book reviews, bookclubs, reading-nights, children plays, signing ceremonies, book shows, as well as, book corners in cafes, supermarkets, airports and waiting areas. We also need more public libraries. Except for universities, we almost have none — few neighborhood libraries, and in schools, organizations, civic centers and sport-clubs.

When I worked for a major Saudi bank, there was a library in their headquarters tower. Many used it and also borrowed from it. Years after leaving the bank, I visited the headquarters. To my shock and dismay, the library was gone. Why, I asked. The answer came: ''We needed the space for more productivity. Besides, we didn't want to provide a hiding place for bored employees.''

''What about economic references, financial reports, banking books, magazines and periodicals? Don't your staff need an education and an update on your trade?'' I argued.

''On their own time and at their own expenses!'' came the answer. ''This is a place for work, moneymaking and customer service, only! Time and efforts should be devoted to business. Education, training, self-improvement, information updating have different time and place. We do have training courses and on-job training. Financial reports are systemically circulated to concerned persons. It is more efficient, this way, and right to the point!''

This corporate mentality is the norm, these days, almost everywhere. Ministries, government departments, non-governmental institutions, as well as private companies and organizations, are cutting down in the general education department — closing libraries and book corners, shutting down professional magazines and cultural programs — all in the name of work focus, business efficiency and productivity.

Newspapers and media outlets are not helping, too. We never have the like of the New York Times Book Review, but also not much of space about books in TV, radio and magazines.

With Vision 2030, there is new focus on reading habits. The Plan calls for extensive network of public libraries, art galleries, museums and culture centers. To help, we need to work on reading habits. Mansoor Alzamel, a book publisher, owner of Jeddah Bookshop, as well as, art and culture galleries in Historical Jeddah, is showing us the way. We should take his lead.

— Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah. He can be reached at kbatarfi@gmail.com. Follow him at Twitter:@kbatarfi

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