Sunday, May 25, 2008

Drop everything and read

Kerala can lay proud claim to being India's First State, as far as the fine art of reading is concerned. Naturally, therefore, observation of June 19 as Reading Day and the entire week as Reading Week was in keeping with the State's longstanding tradition of reverence for the written word.

The P.N.Panicker Foundation, in association with the State Government, Education Department and Public Relations Department, decided to observe June 19, the 9th death anniversary of P.N. Panicker, as `Reading Day'.

Panicker was the driving spirit behind Kerala's Adult and Non-formal Education activities, which began in organised manner with the setting up of Kerala Grandha Sala Sangham in 1945 with 47 rural libraries.

Panicker was able to bring 6,000 libraries into this network, transforming the libraries into community centres that were soon abuzz with impassioned discussions, seminars and symposia, all accessible to the public.

Fittingly enough, the Central Government decided to issue the P.N. Panicker commemoration stamp on the occasion of Reading Day.

Continuing the initiative, the current week - from June 19 to 25 - will be observed as `Reading Week' in the State, with special school assemblies to promote the reading habit among children.

Reading Clubs and P.N. Panicker Corners will be formed in the schools. There will also be exhibitions of books during the week.

It is heart-warming that Kerala is taking some pains in this direction, for, all over the world, respect and adulation for reading and the written word is under increasing threat, as critics of television soap operas and matinee cinemas never tire of reminding us. Closer home, witness the near-anaesthetic grip of prime-time soaps on Malayalam television channels.

Worldwide, initiatives are under way to stem the rot. In Malaysia, for instance, property developer Island and Peninsular Berhad (I&P) has come out with an exciting way to help students make reading an indispensable part of life. The company recently donated 300 books worth 8,000 Malaysian ringgitts (approx. Rs 92,000) to a secondary school in Selangor, for excelling in its campaign, DEAR (Drop Everything and Read).

I&P Corporate Communications Manager Izan Hussain told a Malaysian newspaper that the three-month-long campaign was aimed at helping to improve the standard of English among pupils by encouraging them to read.

"Our primary objective of starting the DEAR campaign was mainly to address the lack of interest in reading amongst the young. This vacuum in reading comes from the perception that there are more interesting electronic media such as the Internet and television," Hussain added.

Catching them young was also the motive behind Unesco's General Conference establishing, in 1995, April 23 as World

Book and Copyright Day. Each year, Unesco organises a string of events encouraging everyone, particularly young people, to discover the joy of reading.

Since 1948, Unesco has carried out an ambitious programme to translate and publish more than 1,000 representative works from the widest range of cultures. R.E. Asher's celebrated 1980 translation of Vaikom Muhammed Basheer's Me Grandad 'ad an Elephant was part of the Unesco collection.

Unesco is also backing regional co-publication programmes in Africa and the Asia-Pacific region, with an emphasis on books for children, women and those who have only recently acquired reading skills.

"Books and reading are as important today as ever," according to Milagros del Corral, director of Unesco's Division of Creativity, Cultural Industries and Copyright. "Reading means establishing an interactive dialogue with the virtual universe created by the author of a text - a universe of intellectual representations that differ according to the imagination of each reader," she said.

Ms del Corral - who is also in charge of Unesco's Publications - highlighted persistent inequalities in reading: "There are books on all subjects, for all public and for all times. But we must make sure that books be accessible to everybody everywhere."

That is the challenge ahead - more books for more people, more easily available.

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