During the forthcoming spring a number of different book fairs will be organized in Lahore, but the annual Lahore International Book Fair at the Expo Centre in Johar Town is the most significant affair of them all. Unlike other book fairs which tend to be more sales-driven, the LIBF is much more than just a marketplace; it is an event which heightens literary awareness and appreciation, and courtesy of the excellent facilities at the spacious Expo Centre, possesses a comfortable atmosphere unmarred by the vagaries of weather or electrical supply grids.
Well-known publishers with offices in Lahore such as Sang-e-Meel and Oxford University Press will, of course, be in attendance, but alongside them will be many lesser known but no less interesting publishers, including many from outside the city. Several publishers from India usually attend as well, and the Islamabad-based Turkish publisher Harmony Publications will make another welcome appearance. Major book importers such as Allied Book Company, Pak Book Corporation, and Paramount are regular staples, and large retailers of new and popular books such as Readings will have appropriately large stalls with discounted prices. Some secondhand booksellers will also be there, and their contributions to literary culture should not be discounted.
At a previous LIBF, I observed a young boy being led around by his grandfather, the two plodding along, glancing here and there at tables laden with fat daunting textbooks on politics or literary criticism. The older man seemed somewhat unsatisfied in his meanderings, until he was brought to a halt by a stall adorned with row upon row of glittering, century-old volumes. “Come, son,” said the now alert old man as he gently pulled the boy after him, “I will show you what real books are.”
The stall in question was that of Siddiqui Rare and Antique Books, whose bookshop is on the Mall Road near Regal Chowk. A relatively recent arrival to the LIBF, it is perhaps the only bookshop in the country that specializes in out-of-print and antiquarian items. Here one can find massive church Bibles from the mid-1800s, lovely old illustrated editions of classic literature, Plato in the original Greek, hard-to-find books on Indian history, and not a small selection of the classics of philosophy. There will be many visitors to the LIBF who will probably be seeing such books for the first time in their lives; as such, the presence of such a book stall introduces new generations to new possibilities in the guise of forgotten worthies or uncommon editions of the masterworks.
[quote]Last year I acquired the Penguin translation of Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy for Rs. 100[/quote]
Another great opportunity is provided by Liberty Books, the Karachi-based retailer of new and popular books that now operates a branch in the ‘Mall of Lahore’ shopping complex in Cantt. At the LIBF they provide a discount section consisting of returned or remainder items with some slight damage. The discounts are not slight, however: last year I acquired the Penguin translation of Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy for Rs.100. The original price tag marked the book at Rs.585. Another great find was The Road to Middle-Earth, Tom Shippey’s scholarly and highly informative analysis of J.R.R. Tolkien’s development of The Lord of the Rings. Again, the price was Rs.100; the original price: Rs.875. But my greatest find was an almost new copy of The Landmark Arrian, perhaps the greatest of all editions of the 2nd-century philosopher/historian Arrian’s account of the campaigns of Alexander “the Great”. A large hardback with dustjacket, lavishly illustrated, and accompanied by countless maps, notes, and appendices, it was available for Rs.995, a discount of well over 50%.
There will be other retailers with discount sections but their treasures are not always easily spotted, so it is important to spend time weaving in and out of stalls and not ignoring any.
[quote]At a previous fair I spotted a carton of inviting old paperbacks stashed under a table[/quote]
At a previous fair I perchance spotted a carton of inviting old paperbacks stashed under a table. The table itself was covered with generic novels and the stall overall seemed uninteresting to me but after going through the carton I unearthed an old Herman Hesse novel which I had not seen before. Not that I am advocating anything unseemly like diving under tables with a torch; merely this – that great books often arrive in the hands of those who make great efforts.
Another time I came across a stall representing the Islamic Research Institute in Islamabad. Since there is no shortage of Islamic books in Lahore, one might be forgiven for passing the stall by without more than a glance. But it just so happened that this stall had a number of books in the Great Books of Islamic Civilization series as published by the Pakistan Hijra Council in the 1980s. This series consists of translations of historically significant works of medieval times, such as The Book of Ingenious Devices (Kitab al-Hiyal), a 9th century book on mechanical devices produced by the Banu Musa at the famous House of Wisdom in Baghdad. These books had a limited print run and the projected 100-volume series never got past ten volumes. In close to a decade of roaming for books in Lahore I have only ever come across three volumes in the series, so it was astonishing to find multiple copies of all ten volumes available at this book stall.
One of the things that separates the LIBF from other book fairs is the presence of organizations that are not directly involved in the retailing of books but which complement the industry: media organizations such as the BBC, educational institutes furthering literacy and government bodies such as the Intellectual Property Organization. Given how ignorant (or callous) many people are regarding the illegality of pirating books and the problems it poses for legitimate authors and publishers, the appearance of the IPO and the distribution of their literature is a valuable service. Commendably, the LIBF expressly forbids the sale of pirated material.
Whether its children looking for something colourful and entertaining, students looking for textbooks, or scholars looking for obscure monographs- over the course of five days tens of thousands of visitors will pack the great hall. One will walk past stalls heaped with books new and old, cheap and expensive, in Urdu and English, and witness experienced librarians browsing with a critical eye, excited young boys and girls squealing in triumph, and retired gentlemen squinting closely at some now-forgotten work of a bygone era. One will overhear numerous conversations about books, their editions and prices and availability, their authors and influences and meanings. It is difficult to imagine a booklover coming away from the event disappointed. However, I’ve always thought that events such as these should incorporate other literary proceedings such as book signings or lectures. Almost coterminous with this year’s LIBF is the Lahore Literary Festival, which was held at the Alhamra Art Centre last week. It would be great if the two events could be hosted together.
As for the booksellers and publishers, not all of them will make a profit; for many of them the event is an opportunity (or gamble) to attract new customers. Despite this, few would deny that the buzzing atmosphere is a jovial one, and that the sight of men and women of all ages seeking books of all kinds is reassuring. There may be some slight truth in the oft-touted notion that the culture of books is dying, but the juxtaposition of the LIBF with the budding of spring can be looked upon as instructive: the culture of reading may wax and wane, but it does not die.