As children in other parts of the country, in urban centres like Karachi and Lahore, were rushing to books stores to get their hands on the latest instalment in the Harry Potter franchise last month, what were the children in Peshawar doing? Or for that matter, in many cities and villages of Pakistan that have been rocked by militancy, terrorism and an extreme radicalisation of social and political thought? Were they lining up for these books, or any other books that caught their imagination?

The world over, reading books is going through a revolution, people are switching to buying books online, or reading on their tablets and smartphones and so the traditional book store is going out of business. In Pakistan the revolution is more sinister. We aren’t switching our mediums, we are just not reading, period. Have you heard of any contemporary Urdu writer lately? Read their work and through, “Well here is the next Manto, or Faiz!” There is no next Manto or Faiz, because there’s no one here to read him.

That is what has happened to two major bookstores in Peshawar. They shut down because there is no one who is reading. One of the bookstore owners placed a heartfelt note on its entrance as it went out of business and the message has gone viral: “The entire society collectively is in grasp of moral degradation, senselessness, extremism and terrorism because of their ignorance. People have no habit of reading anymore so libraries and bookstores have no meaning for such a society.”

Reading forces you to piece together the story you are reading, to keep more and more information in your head as the story progresses. That exercise gives your mind practice in understanding things. This power to understand something different quells violence and intolerance. What do we read if we don’t go to the bookstore? A religiously biased education syllabus? According to one eighth-grade textbook, "As a student though you cannot practically participate in Jihad but you can financially help in preparation of Jihad." A 2014 U.N. Development Programme study reported, "No young Pakistani man or woman, school going or not, socio-economically deprived or affluent, can escape exposure to this [extremist narrative]: The narratives are public, they are loud, and they are bold."

The counter narrative - found in history books, in imaginative comic books, in travelogues and biographies - is stuck in a cellar somewhere when a book shop went out of business, because many of our parents, our teachers, our imams, our elders, our colleagues, do not read, nor are aware that this lack of mental effort to know the other and understand, is the cause of our national downfall.