Q: Generally what place do books and book reading have in Iranian culture, the past and the present?
Matlabi: To answer this question, you would have to look into two cultural periods, Iran before and after Islam. Generally, education and book reading were regarded highly in ancient Iran as they are today. With the advent of Islam this trend significantly increased, as priceless and timeless works were produced at different stages. For instance there is the Masnavi of Roumi, the poetry of Rudaki and prose poetry of Sa’di. There is also Qabous Nameh, which is a major Persian literature work of the 11th century and it describes Iranian culture and traditions pertaining to the education of the young and the old. Many Persian books of earlier periods emphasize the significance of education as a part of our didactic literature and culture. These works were not limited to literature for which the Iranians were and are famous but they ranged from astronomy and mathematics to medicine and philosophy. Many of these works were written in Arabic language after the advent of Islam. These books were used for the purpose of teaching or were generally read by people. Islamic sayings and teachings also emphasize research and reading to a great extent and so when Islam came to the country, Iranians who had a strong background preserved the same essence for quest to expand their fields of knowledge. In a way, the Iranians Islamic spirit and thirst for knowledge helped to promulgate education and reading even more, particularly in regional Muslim and Arab countries.
Q: What about Iran today?
A: If we compare thirty years before and thirty years after the Islamic Revolution, which triumphed in 1979, we can find how books and book reading were and are actually regarded. Like any other cultural phenomenon, book reading is also subject to the social, political, economic and cultural fluctuations of its time. For instance, before the Revolution, people were socially and politically disappointed and censorship and ban of certain books impacted the general ambiance of book readers and restricted reading choices. After the Revolution, reading initially became a growing trend because people were curious about the events and changes taking place. Generally speaking, in any time period, the more supportive of civil liberties are governments and their administrative units, the more book readers they will actually have. But this is just one of the many aspects. Also, anytime a country faces intense economic challenges, people are naturally inclined to dedicate their meager salaries to other practical and daily things and book reading or other cultural activities are not really matters of priority then. On the whole, I can say, over the past 60 years, there has always been an increase, whether dramatic or gradual, in book reading. In the early years of the revolution, about 2000 titles were published annually, of course with larger print runs as compared with today. Last year, however, we had over 64,000 titles published with an average print run of 3400. Iranians generally love reading and learning, so if they can get through the challenges of everyday life and their overall financial status improves, we are certain to witness an increase in reading but again, this is just one of the many contributing factors. The main problem, I think, is that people are not aware and do not feel the direct impact of reading in their everyday life.
Q: What about the Iranian tradition of oral culture? How would you say that has impacted book reading?
A: Most third world countries have still preserved their oral culture. Although some measures have been taken towards documentation under the effect of mechanisms employed in official and social structures, many of these countries are yet to grow out of this stage. We are more inclined to see, hear and speak rather than write and document. This is visible in our everyday life. And that perhaps falls under the habit of opting for the least difficult path. Generally, before doing anything, the correct procedure is to consider the overall situation and consequences, and have an outline and then take action based on that information.
Q: There are claims about the decline of book reading in Iran. Some cite surprising statistical information, saying the culture of book reading is diminishing. However, when we glance at bookstores, we see new titles appear annually in comparatively good print runs. Considering the demand and supply model in the book market, how can there be an increase in publication if reading is on the decline?
A: Well, I don’t have the precise statistics at hand, but I think as long as we do not have a clear definition of reading, these statistics are open to question. What is actually called ‘reading’? Does it include only books or does it pertain to other media, like newspapers and journals? Are academic and educational books also in this category? What about our religious books and texts and prayers and so on which are read by most people on a daily basis? The general explanation is that reading happens when we have certain questions in mind and we engage in the activity for our own curiosity or with the purpose of responding to more specified goals. When you see the bookstores of Enqelab Avenue in Tehran or the annual international book exhibition, these are always crowded. We are people who love books and book reading provided that books reach us in time and according to our needs. Our taste is shaped and sharpened when we read more and more books in line with the questions we have in mind.
Q: What about virtual and audio books? How are they placed in Iran?
A: As I said, based on the needs of time and requirements of different generations, books in various formats have been produced the world over. What I see today is that the Iranian youth relates more easily to non-print media and I think we can gain more positive results if we move in this direction. I myself have Roumi’s poetry on my cellphone and listen to it in the taxi and on the subway, because otherwise I normally won’t find the time to read poetry. My time, like many others, is spent in studying in my specific academic field. So when should I listen to poetry or read a novel? The audio book bridges my time. Publishers, however, have not really taken an interest in audio books; these books are posted on the internet by enthusiastic individuals who want to share. Listening to an audio book should also be defined as a part of a reading activity. Just like when you read, you listen carefully and think and sometimes the way you turn a page, you rewind and listen again.
Q: Are there book reading similarities in Iran and other countries?
A: Looking at the print runs and various editions, I think you see some similarities between book reading in and outside of Iran. Books that provide general information about any specific area normally sell well. For instance general psychology, general management, general books on education have large print runs worldwide and it is the same Iran. You don’t have to be a manager or psychologist to read such books and they can be of interest to almost anybody. I can say Iranians tend to read books that are written in a simple language while they are also scientific and educational. This is also in line with popularization of science which aims at bringing the basic principles of science to the public. Religious books and general information about spirituality also find avid readers. It is almost the same in the whole world, people begin reading by books which are simple, later their tastes are shaped and they move on to more sophisticated books.
Q: What books in Iran have been bestsellers for years?
A: Books of Persian classic literature like the Ghazals of Hafez, the Golestan and Boustan of Sa'di, and others have been best sellers for years. You will find at least one or two of these titles in almost every Iranian home. Publishers produce various elaborate editions of these books and use the sales money to produce other types of books. Of the holy Qur'an is the most widely available book, while the top seller is the Prayer Manual Mafatih al-Jinaan, followed by Tafsir or Exegesis of the holy Qur'an. Next are general psychology and general management books written by Iranian specialists. The rest of the book categories have medium print runs. Also, school and academic guidebooks sell in great numbers
Q: What about children’s books, do they sell better?
A: Well, children’s books have larger print runs compared to books pertaining only to adult readers, because children’s books are published for and can be used by all children, whereas books published for adults have only specific groups of readers.
Q: What about books in translation? What is the place of international books in the Persian reading world?
A: I can say about 45 percent of the annually published books are in translation. Most of them are used as academic textbooks. Other genres in translation include general psychology, general management, and novels and at a smaller print run, poetry books. There are also books published in very scholarly and professional fields for very specific groups of readers. Books on philosophy and social sciences, concepts of which are imported and originally produced outside of Iran, are also published in translation.
Here we wish to inform our listeners about major libraries in Iran, especially in the capital Tehran and the holy city of Mashhad. Officially inaugurated in 1937, the present National Library of Iran incorporates many different collections from older libraries, including many rare and valuable manuscripts. The main branch is located in north-central Tehran while several branches are scattered throughout the city. Prior to its official opening, other libraries in the country performed the same function informally. The first prototype of a national library in Iran was the Library of Dar al-Fonoun College, established in 1851. In 1899, another library called the "Nation's Library" was inaugurated in Tehran. The present library also has a new building which combines different faculties of the library in a single platform. The library by itself is over 90,000 square meters, one of the largest library campuses in the Middle East. It encompasses 5 halls, each hall dedicated to a different faculty, including Law, Humanities, Social Sciences, Science and Science Education, and Health Studies. Another major library is the Central Library of Astan-e Qods-e Razavi in Mashhad in the holy shrine complex of Imam Reza (AS), the 8th Infallible Successor of Prophet Mohammad (SAWA). Originally established more than half-a-millennium ago in 1457, it is today an international center for Islamic research, and has over 1 million and 100, 000 volumes of books. There are also several manuscripts and rare works of antiquity of Islamic history, a useful resource for scholars. The library has 35 branches, 17 of which are in Mashhad itself and 5 more in other cities of Khorasan Razavi Province. Interestingly, there is also one branch in India.
It is to be noted that besides Astan-e Qods-e Razavi library, the Malik National Museum and Library in Tehran, the Central Library in Tabriz in northwestern Iran, the National Library of Iran in Tehran are among some of the largest libraries in the country today. Among libraries containing a vast collection of manuscripts is the Majlis or Parliament Library in Tehran, and the Library of the Late Ayatollah Mar'ashi Najafi in Qom, which is indeed a one-man collection. In addition to public libraries, there are small or large libraries in cultural associations across the city, known as Farhang Saraa (literally meaning, house of culture). There are 33 cultural houses in Tehran alone. Iran’s Center for Media Studies launched the country’s first digital library a few months ago. The library which shares resources with academic centers and universities contains over 800 Persian books, 3,475 books in foreign languages, 19,000 Persian articles, over seven thousand foreign language articles and over 760 dissertations in Persian and other languages. Libraries in Iran date back to the Achaemenid Empire that flourished over 2,500 years ago, from 330-to-538 B.C. In addition to the Persepolis Library, the Susa Library in southwestern Iran near the modern city of Shush in Khuzestan Province was famous. Philosophy, astronomy, alchemy and medicinal sciences are believed to be among the types of books in these libraries. The buildings and books were destroyed when Alexander of Macedonia attacked and devastated Persia. Other notable libraries were the Gundeshapur Library at the academy of the same name that was founded in 271 CE during the rule of the Sassanid Empire. It continued to exist more than a century-and-a-half after the advent of Islam, until the rise of Baghdad as the academic center, to which its books and scholars were transferred.
The Persian word for book is the borrowed Arabic word ‘Ketab’. The Persian word for library, however, is ‘Ketab-Khaaneh’ which literally means ‘House of Books’. In Iranian culture, book is deemed as one’s ‘best friend’ and a ‘kind companion’. There are many Persian poems that have employed this expression. A book is also considered a precious gift as it can ward off unwanted guests like boredom and languor. According to the Ketab-e Hafteh, a weekly journal covering domestic and international book news, the cheapest published book in the country is a prayer book with a price tag of approximately 250 Tomans, or US 23 cents. The largest print run so far is of 600,000 and the smallest print run is of 300. Interestingly, an Iranian has designed in a span of 5 months what could be the world’s largest book. Ali-Reza Rezaei Aref, a successful entrepreneur and a farmer, told domestic reporters that he awaits the arrival of Guinness officials who will examine his work in the city of Shiraz in the near future. Entitled “Tourism in Hamadan, Iran and the World”, the 700-page book can simultaneously be read by 200 people. Each page of the book is 120 by 85 cm large. The spine has a diameter of 30 meters and together all pages make a diameter of 9 meters. The book occupies a space of 1000 sq meters. The last registered world record is of a 4 meters book in California.