The National Book Trust (NBT) had organised a week-long course on book publishing at the Central University of Jammu located in an upcoming campus in the Samba district of Jammu very near to the Indo-Pak border. While discussing how rare it was to see people reading during a journey by train or bus, one of the participants spoke about train journeys and the excitement of rushing to the A.H. Wheeler bookstall (at almost every platform in big stations) and picking up something interesting to read and relieve the tedium of a long journey. I told them of the history of Wheelers from the British times and how the Bannerjee family of Allahabad acquired a controlling interest in the company.
Now, of course the Wheeler stalls are full of “quick reads”, books on astrology and palmistry, religion and spirituality, self-motivation and personality development and “penny dreadfuls”, tales of crime and mystery in both English and Hindi. In Hindi, books by Gulshan Nanda were always a popular draw. The Wheeler equivalent in railway stations in the southern part of the country was Higginbothams, now owned by the Amalgamations Group in Chennai. They had retail showrooms in some of the most prominent locations in the south, on Anna Salai in Chennai and on Commercial Street in Ooty apart from others.
Now of course with air travel being both popular and affordable, bookshops run by W.H. Smith and Relay Books rule the roost while airports in Kerala have D.C. Books. Trade publishers consider book displays at airports to be of high visibility even though the books are increasingly losing display space to other merchandise. The display stock is always of the more popular authors both Indian and foreign. But books are treated more as commodities, “buy two and get the second at half-price”. Never mind if you didn’t want the second in the first place. It’s all in merchandising and bundling of books to attract the consumer. No one cares about the discerning reader who is careful and would like to browse before buying. My purpose in telling the course participants was to make them observe a reader (now alas a vanishing species) during a journey. I told them to observe how closely the reader engages with the text, some make notes on accompanying sheets of paper, others mark the text itself (not a recommended practice) and others look up a reference in another book. In all these, the reader is engaged with the text, the book and the book alone has the unique capacity of holding the attention of the reader for lengths of time. I mentioned that Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, while releasing the first version of the Kindle at the Jacob Javits Centre in New York city in 2007, hooked up the Kindle to wireless Internet through CDMA technology, where readers reading Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, for example, could bookmark a page and then look up a reference on the net. I said Bezos, whose wife was an author, was doing the same thing we were doing all these years, except his means were digital.
Reacting to a participant’s query about lack of interesting reading material on railway platforms, I said there was a time when you didn’t have to step out of the train to get books, the books came to you! Almost all long-distance trains, journeys of two nights and more, on trunk routes, had a travelling library on the train. The fare offered was varied, both books and magazines, in English and one Indian language depending upon the state or province. For six years I travelled long-distance in the mid-1960s from my residential school in the Nilgiri Hills to our home in Kolkata on our annual vacations. After an overnight journey to Chennai, I looked forward to boarding the main train to Howrah, a journey of two nights and two and-a-half days, in a three-tier sleeper for I was going home for two months of unbridled vacation! The tedium of those journeys much relieved by the pleasures of the travelling library where one could finish a Nick Carter, a Hadley Chase, a Perry Mason or a Hercule Poirot novel during the journey for a nominal reading fee. If one needed more time to finish the book, well, the train obliged and was invariably late! But the librarian would never part with the book, it was railway property and sometimes, if he was in a slightly sour mood would send his assistant to collect all the books even though the train was late, for he had his accounts to do. But he did oblige avid readers and regular travellers like me. I read rapidly (there was not much to do otherwise) and finished most books well before the deadline. The other attraction in the train was the pantry car. All the reading made you hungry and one did not much care for the “thali” lunch but preferred “continental” vegetarian. The attraction here was the vegetable cutlets and finger chips accompanying the bread butter slice. The cutlets were wolfed down with huge quantities of tomato ketchup and I fear the railways must have incurred a loss on the ketchup alone! Increased efforts have been on to give better reading fare to travellers, particularly, train travellers.
The most recent one is that commuters on the train from Canary Wharf to other destinations will be able to read one, three or five minute short stories that will be dispensed free-of-cost by a vending machine. The length of the story to coincide with that of the journey, this is the first of the three short story vending machines to be set up on the London line following similar installations in Hong Kong, France and the US. The machines in London will feature stories by Virginia Woolf, Anthony Horowitz, Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens. The vending machines are made by a French company appropriately called “Short Edition”! These are the days of an instant and immediate connection with a reader with a short and limited attention span. It may be recalled that years ago, when audio cassettes were in vogue, the makers of the then model of the BMW car had a short Ruth Rendell mystery audio story installed. This was an added attraction among the many other attractive features of the car. The audio story lasted for 40 minutes, the average length of a car ride then within city limits.
One is also reminded of the story of Allen Lane, the legendary publisher and founder of Penguin. The story now no longer considered apocryphal, stated that after a meeting with the famous Agatha Christie, Lane exited at Exeter station and looked for something to read along with picking up a pack of cigarettes. Cigarettes were plentiful but alas not interesting reading matter. Lane immediately resolved to bring out a line of paperbacks, each of which would be as cheap as a pack of cigarettes and as easily available. Thus was born the world-famous Penguin Paperbacks in varying colours of orange and green and took the publishing world by storm. The paperback revolution led to much greater visibility for Penguin both in retail bookstores and in railway platforms and tobacconists displayed them along with cigarettes. It’s believed that many smokers got converted into readers too. Today, we have conversions of a different kind. Efforts are on to point out to the dangers of tobacco consumption and to make smokers give up the habit.
As far as books are concerned, the e-book revolution has converted a section of readers who only read from a device and not from print. The reading format can indeed be a personal choice but it’s the habit that must continue.
The writer is a senior publishing industry professional who has worked with OUP and is now a senior consultant with Ratna Sagar Books