Saturday, May 21, 2011

Changing Reading Habits in India

Online book stores have been critical in influencing the reading habits around the world. But have they influenced the Indian landscape as well? In order to assess the impact, let's discuss the changes in reading habits in India.

Reading is the process of using one's 'eyes' and 'mind' to understand the literal as well as the hidden meaning of what the writer is attempting to convey. Academicians consider a good reading habit to be based on four stages:
  • Exploring
  • Checking the Vocabulary
  • Analyzing for Comprehension
  • Synthesizing for Understanding
What constitutes "reading habit"?
Before we carry forward the discussion on reading habits, it is necessary to describe what constitutes "reading habit". Text book reading does not amount to reading habit. In fact it's reading as a hobby that makes the cut. So reading a novel, poetry, biography or books by Indian writers on travel, gardening, health or entertainment would come under the ambit of reading habit. I would quote a few lines from an international journal that for me describes reading habits succinctly. "Reading habit is the art of personal investigation and self-study. It should be followed by self-thinking and analysis, and only this kind of self-study on one's own accord, can develop into good reading habit."

The Indian scenario
India has been an interesting case-study for observers of reading habits. On one hand its relatively low literacy level (65%) poses a challenge to the publishing houses or the online book stores, on the other hand with only 7% of Indians surfing the web regularly, one can say that the Indian print industry is far away from being mauled by digital technology as has been the case in the developed nations. The gap that exists can be gauged by the fact that an average American reads 20,000 pages a year while an Indian reads only 320 pages. Cultural ethos, development of education (literacy levels, presence of libraries) and economic condition go a long way in influencing reading habits. It won't be wrong to assume that low per capita income has meant that books are out of reach of the common Indians thus resulting in such sorry figures as previously mentioned. But figures also indicate that reading habits are strongly influenced by culture. States like Kerala, Maharashtra and West Bengal show strong reading habits although their per capita income is lower than the states of Haryana and Punjab. Another often neglected issue has been the easy availability of books which could be solved by upcoming online book stores in India.

Why do Indians read?
So how has the reading habits changed in India over the years? As we saw that India suffers from low literacy levels but when one considers that three decades ago our literacy levels were half of where they are today, then it does present an optimistic scenario. It would be interesting to know why Indians read. Worldwide some common motives for reading are to satisfy one's curiosity; to enhance one's horizon of knowledge, to form opinions, to get acquainted with the current affairs, to develop critical thinking and mature judgment, to know the one's surroundings or to identify one's self with a group. Thus we can broadly divide the approach to reading as being either functional i.e. improving skills or spiritual i.e. imagination or debate.

The surveys
A study done by Indian Streams Research Journal (ISRJ) to identify the reading habits of teacher trainee for the D.Ed. course showed that for only 12% of the respondents reading was a habit and almost three-fourth read just for improving skills. With teachers playing an instrumental role in instilling reading habits amongst the students as school days are the formative years, it's not a surprise that reading as a habit isn't picking up as teachers themselves don't seem that motivated. National Book Trust (NBT) in India undertook a readership survey in 2009 amongst the youth (13-35 years) which showed that less than 20% said they were encouraged by their parents.

The outcomes
Without being judgmental we can say that the Indian readers are looking for similar benefits from the book that they can have from the newspapers i.e. reading for information, for improving their English etc. Success of books by top Indian authors like Chetan Bhagat shows that "paisa vasool" is the underlying mantra for choosing the titles to read. But it doesn't mean that the picture is dismal. With the proven capabilities of regional Indian authors, one way out could be translations of their quality content into English. This would increase their reach as well as impact. As the CEO of a famous publishing house once said, "I don't know if people are reading but as long as someone is buying - I will take any sales." In fact the online book market is estimated to increase at the rate of 50 per cent year on year. So the market is there and online book shopping in India is growing.

With more online book stores coming in India and books by Indian authors appealing to the senses of the reader i.e. imagination or instilling public debate, the future has better things in store. As we create the right environment (the role of parents and teachers becomes all the more important in inculcating reading habits) and indicators like literacy levels, per capita income etc. improve, we would see reading habits adding more value to the lives of the readers.


  1. Realize that it is not the central theme of your aticle but what is the source of this 20000 pages number. It seems ludicrous to believe any country's average citizen reads 60 pages a day

  2. Hi, thanks for raising this question. Even I was shocked. Here is the source:

    Pls refer to pg 2-right half-2nd para

  3. I understand that it's a paper published in a journal but the author does not provide a source there either to substantiate the claim. A quick search of the internet does not reveal any evidence in support. I don't think it's a realistic number
    This site gives a few stats
    1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
    42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
    80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
    70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.
    57 percent of new books are not read to completion.

  4. My friend you may be right that the numbers are a bit exaggerated but it would be hard to refute that there is a huge difference between the number of pages read by an average American and an average Indian. In fact more than 20000, the data for India i.e. 320 pages could be more ludicrous.
    But I must say your above post was really enlightening. Thanks for the post as well as the effort.