Bookworm that I am, maybe my fond memories of the month have a lot to do with the Bangla Academy Book Fair
I have lived in North America for a little over four years now, and every year by late November, one perceives a change in mood. Holiday decorations go up, supermarket music and shelf arrangements change, and everyone begins to clearly anticipate the upcoming festive season.
To me personally, the closest feeling to this I ever had back in Bangladesh was leading up to the month of February. Spring is in the air. In the mornings and evenings the temperature is just right for a leisurely stroll without having to worry about the brutal cold. Granted, it never gets that cold in Dhaka. But still, there used to be something electric in the air about February.
Bookworm that I am, maybe my fond memories of the month have a lot to do with the Bangla Academy Book Fair. I read throughout the year, and whenever possible, throughout the entire day. However, for the remaining eleven months in the year, my book shopping is, of a necessity, either highly specific with respect to the book I am looking for, or at best very limited in range due to the dearth of variety in most bookstores.
For most of my life in Dhaka, at least one visit a month to the New Market bookstores was a given. However, most shelves in most stores would be populated with a handful of big names, writing about a handful of more popular topics. Bengali non-fiction was particularly hard to find. Which is why I eagerly looked forward to at least weekly visits to just browse all the stalls, with no clear list of books to procure. My bookshelf back home holds many surprising gems that I did not go in looking for, and probably would not have found in bookstores for the rest of the year. I have the wide selection and the diverse stalls in the Book Fair to thank for that.
This is also why I think the Book Fair is supremely important, beyond the celebration of culture that it is supposed to be. The Book Fair is also crucial for the literary scene in Bangladesh. For the rest of the year, publishers and readers alike focus on a handful of writers, and a handful of topics. Unless you are a well-known name already, or have significant financial means, or are writing about something wildly popular currently, your ambitions as an author can be very hard to actualize under these circumstances. The Book Fair in February gives writers a somewhat better chance to have the fruits of their labour noticed by their target audience. Of course, this is only true as long as we, the readers, are also willing to make a bet on lesser known names and lesser explored topics.
I have no idea when I might be able to go to another Book Fair, if ever. Writing about the Book Fair has me overwhelmed with nostalgia I had thought myself incapable of for years now. Maybe someday I will walk those grounds again, stop by each pavilion, spend some time looking at their collections. Maybe that trip will end the same way most of my previous trips have ended, trying to figure out how to transport the pile of books all the way back to Uttara. For now, I can only urge those of you reading this, go to the Book Fair. Go with a huge crowd of your friends. Laugh a few hours away surrounded by friends and books, two of the greatest pleasures in life. But most importantly, buy some books. Buy a few of the big names from the big publishers, for sure. But also set aside some of your budget to buy the author who published their first book. Or the academic who poured out a lifetime of research into their most recent book on some topic they are passionate about. Hopefully, each such purchase will encourage publishers to branch out to diverse topics, and not just more of the same four fiction genres. More importantly, it might encourage our authors to put in more time into their craft. There can certainly be no better celebration of our language, history, and culture than that.
Hammad Ali is a PhD student and a lover of fountain pens