World Book Fair, or a giant Book Shop?

We visited World Book Fair 2015 at Pragati Maidan yesterday. We spent about 4 hours there, and while we bought tons of books, I didn’t feel excited the way I used to feel a few years ago on the sight of books. Something was missing from the fair. I remember I had a similar feeling in the last Delhi Book Fair, which was similar but in fewer halls. This set me thinking.

I think these fairs are a big waste of time as they are structured today and not worth visiting. I think that is the reason why attendance is dwindling every year (in addition to the obvious reason that less people prefer to read these days than before).

These book fairs have more than 90% of space occupied by stalls selling books of all kinds. This was great for me 10 years back, because it was so hard to find books in bookstores around me. Things have changed a lot over last 10 years though. Book purchases have moved online and continue to do so rapidly. Bookstores are disappearing but no one is noticing. In fact, people are getting used to not seeing bookstores around them and seem to have adapted to it. I am getting used to it too.

So when I see rows of book stalls in a hall, and halls full of such stalls, it tires me very quickly. That is what happened in this fair as well. I was exhausted by the time I finished visiting the stalls in 1R (children’s books) because I would see similar books all over, and the only thing I could do in a stall was to select a few books and buy them.

I did stumble upon an NGO called Eklavya from Bhopal which publishes children’s books (primarily in Hindi), and got to know about them by talking to one of the persons in the stall. This was refreshing and different than what I did in other stalls. I wish there was a way to discover some more such stalls, but there wasn’t any.

I also visited the stalls from other countries. My goal was to see what kind of literature they produced and I was hoping to pick something interesting, like their folk stories. However, books available in those stalls didn’t seem to be chosen to satisfy such a curiosity. In Pakistan’s book stalls (there were many), I couldn’t find anything in Devanagari script, or in English language, everything was in Urdu. In Nepal stall, there were hardly 50 books, on some random, uninteresting topics. In Indonesian stall, I did find some bilingual stuff. Of course, many countries don’t publish much books in English, but I would think they would select well for a fair outside their country.

I think the value a book fair like this should no longer be just access to books. It should be about helping readers discover the world around books that is hard to discover otherwise – like the story around Pitara from Eklavya I found. I think they need to stop having such a large space occupied by booksellers, and instead be creating in selecting them. They should make the event much more activity oriented – Hall 7 was primarily activities – another hall had Author’s corner or something, but few and far between. I think they should give spaces to people who are willing to have activities in their stall – book reading, kids’ activities, launch events, etc. round the clock. Visits to a stall should give you more than just the books, only then a book fair of this magnitude and prestige can live up to its name.

This doesn’t mean I will stop going to these fairs; this just means I will temporarily change my expectations from them, and try instead to find how I can influence them in my small way. Any thoughts on how to influence this are most welcome.

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