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IRAN: Book reading on the decline in the Islamic Republic, clerics and officials warn

November 18, 2010 | 10:42 am

Hp_iran_gallery__470x312 Iran has invested heavily in literacy campaigns over the past 30 years, but some Iranian officials and high-ranking clerics suggest Iranians aren't embracing books after all.

They warned recently that "the culture of reading books" among Iranians is dwindling and, in a string of public speeches during a book event this week, called for the launching of campaigns to increase reading nationwide.

"The society places greater value on sandwiches than it does on books,” Iran's semi-official Mehr news agency quoted the high-ranking cleric Ayatollah Yusef Tabatabainejad as saying in a speech he delivered in Isfahan. "Some only read and study books for financial gain and consider book reading a profession, which is a pity. We need to promote reading in a way to develop logical and rational thinking."

Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, chairman of Iran's parliamentary cultural commission, expressed similar worries in his remarks Sunday at the opening of the 18th Book Week of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Tehran, an event running until Nov. 21 under the slogan “Reading, Thought and Wisdom."

"Unfortunately we have a long way to proceed in order to promote the culture of reading in Iran," he was quoted as saying by the Iran Book News Agency. "We should start giving books as gifts even to newly married couples who mostly receive dishware as presents."

Bahman Dorri, the deputy minister of culture and Islamic guidance for cultural affairs, also called for more campaigns to encourage reading.

"We need the help of national media in promoting the reading of books. We must introduce books to people efficiently and continue to do so," Mehr quoted him as saying.

No reliable study about book-reading habits in Iran has been conducted recently, but Tabatabainejad and Haddad-Adel probably have reason to worry if what some students and booksellers say reflects a wider audience.

In large part, economic pressures are preventing Iranians from indulging in leisure reading. Ali, a student in material engineering at a university in Tehran, told Babylon & Beyond that being a well-read intellectual and an avid fiction reader just doesn't help make ends meet.

"Reading books apart from my university texts doesn't pay off," he said. "It pays off to be a clever engineer rather than a cultivated man."

In Tehran, some bookshops survive these days by photocopying university textbooks and selling translations of them in Persian, observers say. Meanwhile, it's becoming increasingly difficult to move novels off the shelves, some book sellers reckon.

Still, some international fiction continues to sell well in Iran. According to one book vendor, Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho's "The Alchemist" sells at a rate of around 10,000 copies per year in Iran. Books about Iranian history also sell quite well, he noted.

Banned book titles and romantic novels with an Islamic touch are apparently also going strong.

But while book reading might be losing steam among some Iranians, the Islamic Republic's encyclopedia industry appears to be booming.

According to Haddad-Adel, no less than 200 different encyclopedias were compiled during the past two years, spurring him to describe Iran as a "land of encyclopedias." 

-- Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photo: An Iranian woman reads a copy of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" at a bookstore in Tehran. Credit: Agence France-Presse