Let's develop a culture of reading
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Let's develop a culture of reading

They laughed when Unesco named Bangkok World Book Capital in 2013 - for good reason. (Cartoon by Din Hin)
They laughed when Unesco named Bangkok World Book Capital in 2013 - for good reason. (Cartoon by Din Hin)

How much time do you spend reading in a single day? According to a Ministry of Culture survey, the average Thai spends 66 minutes per day reading. I am quite surprised and found the amount quite high. Yet the survey also includes digital content on the internet and social media, not only books.

No matter which format is used for the measurement, the reading culture in our country needs a lot of improvement. The latest result of the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) shows our students perform poorly on reading. The level of reading among students in Thailand is low compared to neighbouring countries such as Singapore and Vietnam, not to mention India, which always perform spectacularly in the reading index.

Previous governments -- whether those of Thaksin Shinawatra, Abhisit Vejjajiva or the two junta regimes -- tried to promote reading. The Thaksin government kick-started TK Park, a modern library service, while the Abhisit administration put reading on the national agenda. Ousted Bangkok governor MR Sukhumbhand Paripatra convinced Unicef to give the title The World Book Capital 2013 to the Big Mango.

Anchalee Kongrut writes about the environment in the Life section, Bangkok Post.

Another attempt to improve the reading culture was heralded last week.The cabinet approved the Ministry of Culture's proposed Masterplan to Promote Reading. Culture Minister Veera Rojpojanarat said it aims to boost the time which Thais spend reading from 66 to 90 minutes over the next five years. The masterplan also focuses on promoting a love of reading among students. This masterplan has been praised by many people, including those in the publishing industry. Yet many still wish to wait-and-see.

Charun Homthienthong, president of the Publishers and Booksellers Association of Thailand, welcomed the Culture Ministry's masterplan. But more than that, he wants to make sure reading promotion targets the right people.

"The authorities do not have to worry about big cities where people and students have access to books and other reading materials. The areas where we need it are rural areas across the country where parents cannot afford to buy books, nor have access to books. Rural parents and children want to read but they do not have access to reading materials."

Creating more libraries can help. But library budgets should allocated also to the purchase of new books -- covering interesting topics, and up-to-date -- not just construction costs, decoration and on-line computer facilities.

"In order to improve the reading culture, the government needs to invest money in buying content, buying updated books, those that can lure readers," Mr Charun says. "Recently, students in rural areas wanted to read 'Nakee' because the television version was so popular. Yet they could not find the books because local libraries do not have the money to buy them." What a pity.

"If Thailand wants to foster this culture, it needs to change its mindset on the donation of books. The culture of donating books to rural libraries and schools must be reviewed or stopped," he added.

Mr Charun criticises book donations which have become another major form of merit making. I agree with him on this issue. I always check up on books in libraries. I need to confess so many titles are just a big yawn. Recently, I found a textbook on teaching Windows 94!

Another thing the government can do right away is issue regulations requiring commercial buildings or department stores to provide space for small libraries where people can wait and read. Rich corporates and the government can also provide small spaces for mini libraries.

I believe the Culture Ministry's masterplan comes at the right time. Of course, it's understandable that people will read more digital content given the availability of all those smart gadgets.

Yet a renaissance in book reading is on the horizon too. Amazon is about to open its largest book store yet in Manhattan. Meanwhile, sales of electronic reading gadgets like Kindle are falling. Libraries across the world are trying to reinvent themselves by turning into community centres and cultural spots. The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration plans to open a 24-hour library on Ratchadamnoen Avenue. TK Park has already launched more libraries outside Bangkok.

We should not leave this matter to governments and schools. I believe parents need to take a role in promoting a reading culture. Of course, it needs libraries with better curated book content and inviting facilities. But it also needs role models who can inspire young children to read. Reading parents beget reading students.

Anchalee Kongrut

Editorial pages editor

Anchalee Kongrut is Bangkok Post's editorial pages editor.

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