TV is a diversion. YouTube, a distraction. Movies (the best of them) offer two hours' immersion. But when it comes to being truly lifted out of ourselves, to learning about worlds and lives not our own, to having our imaginations sparked and to sheer, lose-yourself pleasure, can anything compete with a great book?
Despite gloomy predictions about the end of print, books are alive and well, thank you very much. While sales are down worldwide due to the global financial crisis (the American Association of Publishers reported a 12 per cent decline in the United States last year), we continue to buy, borrow, lend and read books. At an average of Dh60 for a paperback novel, it's the best entertainment deal in town.
Book fans don't just number among the pre-digital generation. The Kids and Family Reading Report, a Scholastic Books project published in 2008, reveals heartening statistics: among the five- to 17-year-olds interviewed, 75 per cent said that no matter what they could do online, they would "always want to read books printed on paper". Even more reassuring, 63 per cent of those surveyed said they prefer to read books when they "want to use their imaginations".
The Scholastic study also shows that parents who read "for fun" every day are six times more likely than parents who read less often to have children who also read recreationally every day. And when the child rearing is over and the kids are passing on the reading bug to their kids, you can get to the books you always wanted to read but didn't have time for. Whether we're fluent in English or Arabic, Urdu or Tamil, Abu Dhabi is a city of high-frequency readers and unabashed book lovers. We spoke to five families - from two-year-olds to 60-year-olds - to find out who's reading what, and why.
It's a warm room of browns and beiges, with comfy chairs and carpets. Eiman al Zaabi turns the pages of a picture book while her young son and daughter sit on her lap. Saeed, her older son, sprawls on an adjacent couch, brow slightly furrowed, listening. Al Zaabi's nieces and nephew are sprawled across the carpet at her feet. The youngest hold their own books, small hands turning small pages. Sometimes they look up to listen; sometimes their own books are more interesting.
It's a room made for reading. While the children are served a before-bed snack of juice and miniature doughnuts, al Zaabi says: "I used to not like to read. I used to watch a lot of movies. My teachers were always saying: 'Read! Read! Read!'" Now a teacher herself - of information technology at Abu Dhabi Women's College, the school she graduated from - al Zaabi has become a passionate reader. "I actually don't read fiction," she says. "I read because I want to learn and I learn the most from non-fiction."
She's currently reading Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ by Daniel Goleman. The book explains that "we use emotions to make important decisions" al Zaabi says. "We need our emotions as much as our heads, maybe even more. We need to have empathy, patience, understanding." She smiles slightly. "Women are more intelligent emotionally, I think." Al Zaabi also recently read Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love. "That book read like a novel," she says. "It was so courageous and funny. I think it will help men understand women - what we're really like."
At that moment there's a misunderstanding across the room. Ibrahim, al Zaabi's two-year-old nephew, throws his book on the floor, sheds tears. It's a skirmish over a book, it seems. Someone brings in a pet turtle to show me and tempers are sorted and soothed. Reading is highly encouraged in this household of cousins (al Zaabi's sister's family lives here as well, since the sisters' husbands are brothers.) There's even a library upstairs, though it seems every room contains the kind of comfortable couch and warm light that invite reading.
"I so much want them to get into reading," al Zaabi says as she watches the children. "We give them incentives such as stickers if they read the Quran, say their prayers and read books." She really has to push, however, to get the children to read in their mother tongue: "They don't like reading in Arabic." Children's books in Arabic tend to be, in her words, "shallow". It's a problem she encounters in her own reading, particularly when it comes to the self-help books she's drawn to.
Al Zaabi, who hopes to move into the field of personal growth and stress management, says: "It's a new area here. In the past you didn't get a book to get help; you didn't go to see a psychologist. It just wasn't in the open. But now, with more and more people getting educated, it's starting to change." It's time for evening prayers and al Zaabi leaves me momentarily in the company of six children. Saeed, nine, eyes me somewhat warily, but the girls - al Zaabi's nieces, 10-year-old Alya, and three-year-old Salama, and six-year-old daughter, also named Alya - are eager to talk.
"I read Harry Potter in Arabic," says the elder Alya. "I like princess books," says little Alya. "I like them in English." "Harry Potter was scary," continues her cousin. I ask Saeed if he likes adventure books. He moves his hand back and forth: so-so. "I like Sam's Duck," he whispers. "Is it funny?" I ask. "No, not sad. Not funny. Normal," Saeed says. Ibrahim brings over a tiny board book, Spot in the Garden. His grin tells me this is his favourite.
Little Alya recounts a fairy tale she recently read. It is another meandering plot line. "I think books are a little bit scary and a little bit happy," she finally concludes. "She reads the most," says al Zaabi, re-entering the room. "Oh, this is Abdullah's favourite." She hands me an obviously loved book. The end pages are covered in coloured-pencil "drawings". It's part of Ted Dewan's Bing Bunny series for toddlers, Go Picnic.
"How about a picnic in the square?" Bing asks his bunny friend Flop. "No. Too much dog poo," says Flop. And Saeed, the eldest, who's managed to keep his dignity intact throughout, points at the page and laughs, making sure I get it. The al Zaabi family's picks Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert Sam's Duck by Michael Morpurgo Bing Bunny series by Ted Dewan
Spot in the Garden (Little Spot Board Books) by Eric Hill
As a university student in India, Naren Simone wrote poetry. Gail Dickinson majored in English literature in her native British Columbia. Four decades and two demanding careers later - Simone is chief executive officer of an engineering company based in Saudi Arabia, and Dickinson recently retired as an emergency room doctor at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City - are wending their way back to their early loves. The couple met in Saudi Arabia, where both worked during the 1990s. At the time, Dickinson says, "Naren was only reading professional journals". We're perched on stools at a high, round table strategically placed for the best 14th-storey view of the Corniche. The room is bright with sunshine and contemporary art. Dickinson pours tea. Simone's passion for writing had been shelved as he concentrated on his career and raising a family (he has two grown children from a previous marriage). "It took an unfortunate incident - September 11 - to start writing again," he says. "I was working at the time for a consulting business in Saudi but our clients were American. After September 11, that business world closed."
Shortly afterward, Dickinson went away for a three-week conference. "I got back and discovered he'd written a novel," she says, running to get a copy. "I've self-published one, but completed four others," says Simone, smiling modestly. A conspiracy-theory novel, Truth Seekers, which Dickinson proudly hands me, sold more than 1,000 copies in the first week. Writing novels has changed what Simone reads. "When Naren began writing again, he began reading serious fiction," Dickinson says.