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Books or Bars: what thrives on Bhutanese soil?

Courtesy: The Haverford School
Another National Book Fair was held in Thimphu this week. It was launched by the Minister of Education Lyonpo Thakur Singh Powdyel. But the organizers grumbled that not many people are interested in buying books. That’s not a new thing by the way. In his address, Bhutanese media quotes Lyonpo Thakur as saying that he wishes for equal number of bookstalls as there are bars in the town.  We know that it will take another two hundred or so years for that honorable dream to turn into reality, only if something dramatic happens.

Exactly a year ago, a bookshop in Phuentsholing was shut down, providing space for the coming of a shoe store. What is the point of running a business that does not do well? Why run a shop that only a handful of customers step in to browse? Maybe the shop owner thought that that was not how best she could feed her family.

Statistics tells us that seventy percent (or more) of Bhutanese population lives in the villages and this means that seventy percent of our youth reside in the remote area with their illiterate parents. We don’t expect our boys and girls in the villages to read books. Perhaps they are too busy to hold a book in their hand and read, having to look after cattle and perform household chores. Perhaps they have no books to hold and read for whose parents, if their children pass their exams, they are okay with it. Of course why do we expect these parents to know the importance of reading, when they have some helpful hands on breaks or vacations?

At least for now the light has not totally gone out. We have growing number of Bhutanese adults and children who love books and love to read. Reading is a habit that needs to be inculcated and nurtured. We need books at schools and homes. The organizers’ experience tells us that the biggest buyer of books displayed at fairs happens to be schools from various parts of the country.

In urban places like Thimphu we have public libraries that lend books to interested Bhutanese readers. But I am not sure how it works. We were told to borrow a book from these libraries you need to be a registered member. But that makes sense. Otherwise there is no way to keep the record of books coming in and going out the library.

But how many Bhutanese read books by Bhutanese writers? How many Bhutanese have published their works so far? Should we count numbers on our fingers?

By the way one thing is very clear. Books printed in Bhutan are too expensive for an average income Bhutanese reading public. The cheapest one we can get, if I am not mistaken, is Nu. 150 and some go up to not less than Nu 2000. And that's why most us are left with nothing but to continue dreaming of possessing a money machine. 


  1. I can see increasing number of Bhutanese publishing their writings. But I tell you, they aren't really of a standard you want to read.

    I'm not talking about established writers like Aum Kunzang Choden here. I strongly feel that there should be something like a regulating body that will look at the standard of books that are published.

  2. Ngawang,

    I was at the Book Fair all time. I was there selecting books worth of 0.5 million for my office library. But there was not a single youth coming to buy the books from the stalls although it was announced earlier that the books would be sold at 15 % discount on MRP. Most stalls remained unvisited all day. Whatever, Bhutanese, old as well as young hardly read. Your story is timely, and there is lot that our parents need to support and read to their kids.

  3. Books never sold well in Bhutan anytime... and now with lots of preoccupation days for books are gone. To make the matter worse, bookstores are run by business-minded people and not book lovers... the shopkeeper should help buyer choose the book by sharing summary of the books.

    Yes, Like you said Bhutanese books are way too expensive for kids...while for the elders they have bars.

    @Kunza: How about WAB taking that charge in the future? bad books produce bad readers and bad readers reproduce bad writers...


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