One day, in the 1870s, Swaminatha Iyer was reading some verses from a printed copy of the Kambaramayanam, along with some fellow students at the Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam. Just then, Ambalavana Desikar, an old-fashioned scholar and teacher of Mahavidwan Meenatchisundaram Pillai, happened to pass by. He enquired about the book in their hands. On hearing that it was a copy of the Kambaramayanam, he exclaimed with surprise, ‘Have they made a “book” (he used the English term) of it, too!’
This exclamation in turn surprised the students, who could barely control their laughter at the simple old man’s naivety. This anecdote reveals not only the novelty of the book to an older generation but also the beginnings of its penetration into the new generation. Having been socialised to print, the young students had begun to take printed books for granted and could not but mock at older scholars brought up on palm leaf manuscripts.
The above is an excerpt from Reading Practices and Modes of Reading in Colonial Tamil Nadu written by noted historian AR Venkatachalapathy in 1994. UV Swaminatha Iyer was the pioneering editor of Tamil classics. He had narrated this incident in his book Sri Meenatchisundaram Pillaiavargalin Charithiram published in 1940, to explain how a printed book evoked surprise.
The reading culture in Tamil Nadu has come a long way from there. According to Kindle’s recent survey, Tamil Nadu is one of the hotspots where more readers have started reading books on Kindle amid the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020.
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