How Readers are Created. Ecosystem that Produces Readers

How can we create readers and an ecosystem where readers can thrive. How do we make reading a contagious disease when our educational institutions from schools to universities have become mass producers of functional illiterates [1]. Universities complain that they are getting intake that has studied English for 12 years but have no reading comprehension and no expression. The employers are complaining that graduates coming out of the universities can not even write a single page of correct English. This is a dismal situation. How come we are producing functional Illiterates who are defined as people who know how to read but are not readers, and those who know how to write but are not writers! How can we reverse this?

A few years ago, in one of the curriculum advisory board meeting where the details of the courses and their course descriptions were being presented, a board member who is the CEO of an IT company could not hold himself any longer. He raised his hand and spilled his heart out that left all the faculty and other members spellbound: He passionately pleaded that all these finer details of high-end technical courses are fine. But what I am interested in is a graduate who can demonstrate that he can do two things before I would spare my time to interview that person. I first ask the applicant to write one page on a selected topic. Majority of the applicants are unable to coherently write even one page and fail the simple test! Once I have done this, I ask the applicant to put two printer papers side by side so that the edges are aligned. Then, the applicant is given scotch tape to paste the two edges together so that they remain perfectly aligned after they have been taped in such a way that if you hold them towards light, there is no crevice that can let the light through.  The first test identifies the functionally illiterates, the second test identifies those who do not have the drive for excellence and can not work with their hands.  

Please note that the problem is not limited to only English. Most of our graduates would even fail to write a single page of correct Urdu. 

Gulistan e Saadi

I used to take the following quiz at IBA when I was there in the late 1990s and have also taken it in 2010 at LUMS, and have been taking it regularly with every new intake at the institutes where I have been working for the last fifteen years. In motivational talks with the new intake or with existing students, I often quiz them about the extent of their general knowledge. My question typically revolves around great names in our history such as how many of you have heard of Rumi, or do you know who was Saadi Shirazi. This question is important because for centuries till about a century ago, a person was not considered educated unless he had read and learned Masnavi Maulana Rum and Gulistan Bostan and could effortlessly recite the verses and anecdotes from these books with reference to the context. [My nani who had not gone to any school, but was educated enough to use the verses and the anecdotes according to the context! ] At times, I even ask the students if they can place Aristotle on the right side of the millennium. Response to these questions is often dismal. I consider myself lucky if I see a couple or more raised hands in the hall of hundred or more. I am afraid to drill further the students with raised hands about the specifics because of what it may reveal.

Often when I question the students about the books (non-text book) that they have read, there are only about ten to fifteen raised hands from about 200 participants in the hall. When I inquire about  the last time they read a book, I feel lucky if there are even two or three whose answer is “within the last few months”. I am afraid to further drill for information about the books that they have claimed to have read, because they often claim to have read a classic although what they have read is only the abridged version of 40-60 pages and that too when they were at school, and consider that to be equivalent to the real book! Results are equally discouraging when interviewing the students for admission or when interviewing the professionals for faculty position.

About five years ago, Mr Khurram Ali Shafique, renowned Iqbal scholar and writer, was the guest speaker at the final year projects presentation of MBA Education Leadership Program at KIET. He started his address by asking the participants to do a thought experiment and visualize the following scenario:

Khurram A Shafique’s book on Iqbal

What if I tell you that there would be a time when you will have a library in every other street of the residential areas. When you will see that drivers of rickshaws and taxis, while waiting for the passengers, are reading fiction books or newspapers. What if I tell you that the corner stores in residential streets which offer cold drinks, candies and other daily items, have showcases that prominently display fiction books for sale for children and elders. What if I tell you that each busy bus stop has a newspaper stall which is doing brisk business selling magazines and fast moving fiction books. Visualize every bazaar and shopping center having huge bookstores which are doing brisk business,… 

While Mr Khurram Ali Shafique was describing this scenario, I was contemplating the apparent impossibility of the scenario. But, then he suddenly pulled the rug from under me and my thought process, and brought me and the other participants to their senses by asserting that this is not a scenario of the future, but was the actual real life situation that prevailed in our society in not too distant a past. Even as late as mid 1980s this was the reality of life in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad as well as other cities!

And, then I began to recall that yes, I too had witnessed and experienced this situation; I was part of this culture, I had seen and visited these libraries, I was actually an owner of a small library myself, I had seen taxi drivers and rickshaw drivers reading fiction books and newspaper while waiting for passengers, and yet, somehow, I had not only forgotten that this situation existed only three decades ago, but was also unable to visualize the possibility of a such a scenario existing in the future! I will be describing how this happened in the later part of this post. 

A flood of memories came rushing in about my school days in Islamabad of 1970s: I was a proud owner then of a small library of about 100-200 books, mostly Ferozesons Urdu books for children. I used to rent out the books at the “grand” rate of 10 paisa per book per day from my good old Millat Library! I still have some books from that library, sporting my very own library’s stamp. How I took pride in stamping those books, and putting an impressive accession number on it similar to the number seen in British Council Library books. This also brought to my mind, the libraries owned by proud children like me, if not in every street, but in every other street. Our school library and (libraries of nearly all schools) had an impressive and wonderful collection of beautiful books. Of course there were the bigger National Center Library which earlier used to be called Pakistan National Council Library and of course my dear British Council Library that we used to frequent regularly every week. I still can point out the  general stores and chemists which kept fiction books in their corner showcases and from whom I had brought some of the books for my library. It was inconceivable that you will find an idle shopkeeper who was not reading the newspaper while waiting for the customers.

Even in early 1980s, there were several libraries around our residence in PECHS, Karachi. There were two commercial lending libraries in shops in the Dupatta Gali of Tariq Road. [I still recall issuing “Song of Bernadette” by Franz Werfel from one of them. I liked the book so much that I did not return it and let my caution money be forfeited.] There were at least two commercial lending libraries in Nursury. In addition there were several children hobbyist libraries in every locality. Chemists, stationers and other stores did use to display books of fiction in their showcases. There were several magazines and book stalls around the intersections. I remember several large stalls at Nursury bus stop, Nursury market, Liberty chowk and other places on Tariq Road, Bahadurabad Chowrangi and so on. And I had seen taxi drivers and rickshaw drivers reading books as they waited for passengers. Zaibun Nissa Street (Elphinstiene St) boasted of not one but several multi-storey book shops; Sassi Book Store, Pak American, and others.

British Council ??

During my university days of the 1980s, I remember taking route 20 bus to Metropole every week, disembarking and going first to American Center Library, and then walking the short distance up to 20 Bleak House Road that housed the wonderful old colonial era building of British Council. At other times, we would take 1-D bus that directly took us to Cantt Station from where British Council was closer, and from there we would walk to Amercian Center. Those were the good old days when walking in to Amercian Center and British Council was straightforward without the security checks and without the multiple level of fortifications that are seen today. Pakistan Center Library was on the Nursury intersection and much closer to my house as was also the Friendship House of USSR in PECHS. There were other foreign centers such as Goethe Center and Alliance Française. Government libraries included Liaquat Library which used to be full with readers, Ghalib Library, Khaliqdina Hall Library and other government and private libraries were spread all over the city.

But, then some thing happened, and all of this evaporated as if it was a dream in a few years.

What Does the Ecosystem that Creates Readers looks like? Based on a Survey from Facebook

I posted this on Facebook on August 12, 2007 encouraging the readers to post about their experience:

As child, I owned a library with 200+ children books: Rent was 10 paisa/book/day. Did you own/rent from such libraries? What is your experience?

Replies that I got are reproduced below to indicate that there existed an ecosystem and a culture. We threw the baby out with the bath water.

  • Naveed Bitto There was a secondhand bookstore in saddar from where we would a buy a book for Rs. 3 and then return it to get back Rs 2, no limit on for how long we keep. So between friends we would first exchange, then return.
  • Anis Motiwala Yes I did too … plenty 
  • Rehmat Ullah Kundi We had one too. But these days children don’t bother reading books. Instead they spend (waste ) more time playing video games and mobile phones. It is very pathetic situation. Facebook can tell every thing about a person: his /her attitude, character, knowledge level, family background , education and much more. This is a great research tool for people working on social issues.
  • Farooq Parekh Yes. I read books from such libraries for 50 Paisa/day
  • Salman Khaliq I used to take books on rent from a nearby book store Ali Book Depo Karachi Admin Society from 1997 to 2002. That book store used to charge me 1 Rs per day. Books Categories used to be Science and Fiction, Religion related, Umru Ayar, Imran Series, Poetry, etc. Then I started using books from my own  My father is an ex-bureaucrate. He has got his own library of more than 5000 books. Mostly Tafseer, Ahadees, Devaan of Ghalib/Mir, History related, Pakistani History related, Pakistani writers like Anwar Maqsood, Amjad Islam Amjad, Mustansar Hussain Tararr, Javed Chaudhry, Hamid Mir, Abida Hussain, Mr. ZA Bhutto, etc.
  • Engr Abdul Aziz At home, around 50 books, but without rent
  • Baber Khairi My eldest sister used to lend her books to my younger sister for favours, which is rent in kind and the latter used to resent it. Otherwise we got pocket money some of which we spent on books, comics. We also used to buy and resell second hand comic but don’t remember the prices
  • Amber Raza There was a library in a shop behind MOTAMAR AL-ALAM AL-ISLAMI Gulshan Block 7, it was active till late 90s. I remember renting books for as little as Rs 15.
  • Tazeen Arsalan My first memory of a library is that of my grandfathers. He had magazines from all over the world dated back till 18th century and books on different freedom movement. He was extremely possessive about his collection and i was not allowed to touch the books. However, he would daily read from a book foe me and tell the books background. The first financial scandal i learnt about was from him. My school had one of the biggest library in khi called faiz library. We were allowed to borrow 2 books which in later years became 3 per week. I also used to borrow books from defence library, gymkhana and creek club library and yes I was not member of any of these, had friends and family who would borrow on my behalf. If I had to research on a topic, it was always Hamdard library whether it was a book or an article in a newspaper. They used to have compilation of articles topic wise. I also had arrangements with two book stalls, one in nursery and one in administration society who would rent books 10 rupees a week. Then I was also constantly renting books from mangal bazaar pechs, book stall at Khalid bin waleed road which to date exist, one book stall at nipa and Sunday bazaar defence. With all of them I had similar arrangement. If I buy a book then I can sell it back for half the prize. We also had an unspoken promise among cousins that we will share books with each other. All of this was from mid 80s till early 2000. Now I buy more but I still monthly go to a small book stall at do talwar and two old book houses in khadda market. With them the arrangement is that when I return the book, I will get half the prize. I also have extensive personal library and people especially kids in family do borrow from me as due to my two sons I have quite a collection.
  • Tariq Jalees It was common in those days. Most of us were members of different libraries. i was member of British Library Friendship house and a library with a name ideal library off Tariq Road. In summer holidays we used to open our library by displaying books and magzine on desks in front of the house.
  • Faizan Shah U were very strict, especially in charging rent.
  • Nawaz Ahmad Yes, I used to get Rs 1/ book/ day
  • Muhammad Farooq Vayani Yes as child I had library and used to give books on rent during break in class V
  • Waqas Ahmed Yes sir 5 rup/day for Nonehal and Taleem o Tarbiat..and 7 rup for Imran Series 
  • Yahya Ghazali Such places were common 25 30 years ago. Children used to take urdu story series like imran series and others.
  • Fariha Ahmreen We used to envy to your library you were VERY strict bhi
  • Yameenuddin Ahmed Oh yes! Kya yaad dila dia Dr. Saheb… this is how I developed the habit of reading. But at my time in 1980s, it was 25 paisas/book/day  my friends used to take anotger book and we exchange each other’s books to make sure to read both of them one by one to save money 
  • Muhammad Haris One of my friend used to do this in Hyderabad when i was in 4th class.
  • Zaheer Anwar I still miss those times. In my library I had around 500+ books plus I used to buy 4 magazines every month (1) Aankh Micholi, (2) Taleem o Tarbiat, (3) Naunehaal, (4) Phool. Buying the books published by Ferozesons was a luxury. Then I read many books published by Hamdard.
  • I still miss those times. In my bid to transfer this in my children, I have started reading one chapter of a story book for them every night and trust me I can see that time coming back.
  • Humaira Tariq Never rented a book but read all the books from your library without any rent.
  • So lucky to have you all there and now my youngest daughter loves reading. She borrows books from her school library
  • N get two extra from the library teacher N borrows books from her friends 
  • Amber Zaidi Yes me too sir. At home Rs2/book/day english and urdu story books & several other. I used to enjoy it giving book for a day to my neighboring friends to read 
  • I had them many one full big bag of them. It was collection gathered via my parents bot me & I used to buy whenever I was out with them.
  • Maleeha Shahinshah Khan Yes I am a witness to it you and Ahsan chacha took this step . I was happy when I also took a little part in it as I love books.Now Allah SWT is rising L2L Mashallah. Good luck
  • Qamaruddin Mahar I used to rent a story book on one rupee in 80s.
  • Samina Bokhari We had a group of cousins who bought imran series with our pocket money and then circulate the books  and naunehal etc were subscribed.
  • Adnan Varsi There used to be a person in my neighborhood who would bring story books in Urdu and rent them for 1 rupees. We had to sit on foot path and read it then and there.
  • Zafar Mumtaz Burney I used to borrow on rent
  • Umar Asad I would love to have a library, but i have a miniature library if you please. My own collection of fiction and nonfiction books.
  • Syeda Fatima Tu Zahra Yes I had one with more than 500 books. Rent 5rupee/book. Had a register with it in which I kept records. But then got so excited wanted everyone to read books such as Naseem Hijazi Novels that gave almost all of them to people but they didn’t return.It even had  collection of  تعلیم و تربیت from year 1990. 
  • Asad Ullah Chaudhry After loss of couple of books, friends were allowed to read in my house@ 25 paisa… amazing memory and one of my early concept of entrepreneurship
  • Atiq Rehman Oh yes. Doc. We had a library in our market. We finished all 670 books in class 7th and used to go daily for any new arrival. May Allah bless the owner. Ameen
  • Aarif Yahya Allahwala Yes. In our childhood days we took books @0.50 paisa/day from a chaman library
  • Inam Akbar Sattar Allahwala Had stocked more then 500 books in child hood! mostly Enid Blyton Mark Twain Charles Dickens Roal Dahl Goose Bumps and more like these…. once at a school book fair they were accepting old books. I donated all my books there. Librarian of school was over whelmed so she gave me some xxx amount worth voucher to buy new books in return  a few free books as well of my choice. Since then I buy a book read that book gift it to some one! Interesting how I can recall this as a good memory….. Indeed! A good memory.
  • Arshad Siddiqui Yes I was having a library and giving me earning until 1977
  • Yasar Lodi We had 100s of books but never rented them out, had and still have a voracious appetite for books, used to lend books from a library at probably rs 2 / day
  • Nooruddin B. Merchant I did not own a library, however my father used to bring Naunehal and Tot Batoot regularly, which led my foundation for reading.
  • Syed Abdul Hafeez · When I was.a school boy bring books from a private library on rent at one anna per book per day which developed the habit of reading. That is still alive. I am BF of Mr. Irtiqa Zaidi.
  • Ahmad Safi In Nazimabad no 2 Karachi where we lived there were several libraries from.where we daily rented books… 
  • Nadeem Library, Zia Library, Friends Library and Faiz Sons.. I even remember my library card number at Faiz Sons was 362…read a lot of books because of these book repositories… all libraries gone now…
  • Nadeem Ashraf Of course. I’v memories like that
  • Bushra Khurram Had a huge collection of personal books. But did not have libraries in our area in my childhood.
  • Ambreen Zaheer · Yes, I had one too. All my own different story books and a special collection of inspector jamsheed, inspector kamran and shoki brothers series.
  • Saira Nazneen Ibrahim Kya yaad dila diya…. Daastan e ameer hamza, umro ayyar kee zambeel…. And all the other books were available on rent…. Wonderful days
  • Wasia Irfana · Maine Ibn-e- Safi ki sari kitaben 25 paise/day padhi Hain.Uske elawa Ranu ke Hindi novels bhi isi tarah padha hai.
  • Khursheed Hyder My younger brother was very enterprising in his childhood. He had a library and would give books on rent. He loved to read and was a poet at the age of eight
  • Bilal Siddiqui I had a library generally full of anything Enid Blyton and Dastaan e Ameer Hamza (Tilism Hosh Ruba), and then Franklin W. Dixon (Hardy Boys) as I grew older. Nobody ever borrowed because I was the only bookworm in my circle. My father has a much bigger collection in his personal library. I think the book culture is just dwindling very fast, as we move into the internet era. It’s really sad how books are fast being replaced by another medium. I guess it is like seeing the transistor radio disappear for our older generation.
  • Hassan Ali ·Did not rent my books to others… I used to give away my children books to others…. In exchange of their’s 
  • Akhtar Wasim Dar As a child collected film booklets and do not remember collecting any other book. The special interest in those booklets were the songs and those songs so immaculate in language became my basic inspiration to read poetry of masters like Mir and Ghalib.
  • Sohail Jamaliایسا ہی کیا مگر کچھ کتابیں رشتے دار لے گئے- کچھ محلے کے لڑکے۔۔
  • Syed Abulkhair Masroor I did rent.
  • Waqar Yousufi I read lot of books like Yameen Bhai.
  • Junaid Ansari Ishtiaque ahmed novels … purchased from book stalls…re-selling them again with differential amount
  • Hamza Qureshi Only read about this. Born in mid 90s
  • Waqas Raza : I used to rent free of cost … 
  • Irfan Hyder Many of my library memebers also “rented free of cost”


[1] I first heard this definition of Functional Illiterate from Mr Salman Siddiqui, Director, ERDC (Educational Resouce Development Center). As pointed out by Mr Rayed Afzal, E.A.S.T , this term has been around since 1980s and means as per Wikipedia: “functionally illiterate persons can read and possibly write simple sentences with a limited vocabulary, but cannot read or write well enough to deal with the everyday requirements of life in their own society.”

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