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In the era of television and the Internet, do books matter? The answer to this question, even today, is a resounding yes.

Yes, reading for pleasure or recreation has certainly taken a back seat with television having become the prominent entertainment medium today. Many studies across the globe and even in India have shown a decline in the reading habit among students and, to some extent, even among adults.

Reading for pleasure is a habit that needs nurturing from very early in life. Fewer students today are reading for pleasure although it’s a habit associated with better performance in school and better communication skills. Studies have also shown reading expands vocabulary, broadens and enriches experiences and stimulates the development of the brain.

So serious is the declining trend in reading that some countries like the UK or Canada have made concentrated efforts to encourage reading beyond text books among school children. The challenge for parents and educators is to instil in students a sense of pleasure in reading by providing reading material that is interesting and relevant to them.

While governments worldwide have focused on literacy skills and general education, reading for the joy of it is often forgotten. Many schools and even colleges in India do not have access to books beyond their curriculum. Until recently, good books for children were not even available in local languages.

Today, schools in India are realizing the importance of reading and providing quality books beyond textbooks as critical learning inputs for children.

Some Delhi schools are making special efforts, such as DEAR (drop everything and read) periods to instil an interest in reading. Book weeks are organized to encourage reading, discussion and writing stories.

However, there are many types of schools in our country and most do not have any interest or inclination in encouring reading beyond academic texts. Most schools in smaller cities or rural India do not have any libraries. Access to children in village or public libraries is usually discouraged because adults generally use the public space for reading newspapers or to exchange gossip.

Experiments in rural India such as the Mudunuru village experiment in Andhra Pradesh by the voluntary organization BREAD to promote schools and community libraries for children have shown encouraging results.

Even with television competing for time and space in the schedule of a child in villages, children have taken to books, sharing and discussing what they have read. In fact, this experiment claims to have reversed the trend of private schools being prefered over government schools—a library set up in a village government school made the difference.

Unlike television, which requires passive viewing and guided understanding for children, books promote critical and imaginative thinking. They also improve intellectual and emotional development, useful in using and understanding television and the Internet.

The process doesn’t work the other way around—television or the Internet cannot be credited with enhancing communication abilities or emotional intellect.

In this age of information overload, books of all kinds are still a pleasure to physically hold, feel, see and read.

While similar information may be easily available on the Internet today, books and their emotional attachment with us should not be so easily displaced by a gadget and the technoplogy associated with it.

Books have also taken many new avtaars with audio books and e-books; new developments in printing are making available superior quality books at affordable prices. Also, printing books today is relatively easier so we have a number of small publishers experimenting with content and language.

I am still convinced that investing in reading is like planting seeds for lifelong learning, the awakening of the imagination and the broadening of mind and spirit.

P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies (CMS). She also heads the CMS Academy of Communication and Convergence Studies.

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