The Publishers & Booksellers Association of Thailand (Pubat) will surely hate me. But I am not a big fan of the national book fair.
Not that there's anything wrong with the crowded book fair, which is now being held at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre until this Sunday, April 8. On the contrary, it is an increasingly popular event that is better organised each year. But I am addicted to the ambience and the feeling I have when at a book shop, where I can spend time browsing through books, reading a few pages, asking the sales clerk to unwrap the plastic bag and _ sometimes _ return it. The book fair is not a place where I can perform my ritualistic book browsing routine. Period. Yet my work requires me to go to the fair to cover book launches and conduct interviews.
My last visit was last Monday. I must admit the Pubat has succeeded in the book discount event, making it more like a trade and cultural fair. It has truly become a meeting place for writers, publishers and readers. While the activities have become more diversified, unlike in previous events, which were largely dominated by serious literary discussions.
Anyone can sense the change. Activities vary from an ultra-modern launch of the e-book shop _ moby book _ the latest project of famous writer Prabda Yoon along with respected distributor Kled Thai and other young publishers to origami workshops, tax filing tips, not to mention countless book launches and book talks.
But the activity that drew my attention was a seminar by the Thai Cartoon Association (TCA) on how to develop local cartoon content.
Yes. We are talking about cheap local cartoons sold at five baht a book (one baht per copy for over three decades).
And yes, we are talking about those seemingly lowbrow cartoons depicting stories of ghosts, violence and lustful romance which borders on the realm of soft porn. The main customers of this genre of Thai cartoons are low-income earners _ labourers, farmers, fishermen and truck drivers. The books are sold in traditional fresh markets, interprovincial bus connection joints and even petrol stations.
"Indeed, Thai cartoons are what a majority of Thai people read. It's a vast market with millions of readers. Fishermen like to bring a heap of cartoons to read on the fishing boat. Truck drivers buy them at petrol stations. And the farmers enjoy reading local cartoons as they farm," said Sakda sae Eow, or "Sia Thai Rath", the famous cartoonist of Thai Rath newspaper.
The TCA is joining hands with other child welfare and cultural promotion foundations to improve the quality and content of Thai cartoons. The first campaign involved 22 famous cartoonists who drew a series of Thai cartoons to be distributed to rural areas.
The campaign will not only provide readers with better content. It will also help local cartoonists whose job has become less and their income remains unimaginably low _ 1,000 baht per story.
In my humble opinion, this is one of the better reading promotion campaigns because it is aimed at the majority of Thai people _ farmers, low-income earners. Most other reading promotion campaigns only target children in urban areas and the middle class.
I've always felt that reading promotion campaigns in Thailand focus too much on the middle class, and try to make reading something that is purely an intellectual and cultural pursuit rather than a healthy habit or daily staple of life as it should be.
Personally, I sense that a lot of Thai people do not have a healthy reading habit. My assumption comes from hearing local intellectuals, thinkers and educated people saying time and again "oratory culture". And they've come up with a rather convincing explanation as to why many Thais do not read: our culture is oratory. Thais love to recite poems and tell stories based on past memories, not reading or writing, unlike Westerners, who are born and live in a "literary culture".
For me, it does not matter whether this theory postulates merit or mere sarcasm. Everyone from the caveman, Renaissance man to the latest up-and-coming writer have a similar start. They babble, talk and then read.
It's the same thing with reading. What was the first book you read in your life? What type of books are you addicted to? Did you grow up reading Kwam Rak Kong Vallaya by Seni Saowaphong or Joyce's Finnegans Wake? My first love with reading included local cartoons sold at one baht per copy. I was addicted to a comics series of Hindu deities and ghosts. I have to admit, though, the local cartoons in the old days were much more child-friendly. In the past, cartoonists depicted local tales with moral preaching undertones, traditional classic literatures and Hindu mythologies, before young readers forsake them to Japanese manga _ Candy, Curse of Pharoh or Dragon Ball, not to mention Doraemon, which is also my favourite.
Never underestimate the power of these cheap local cartoons. "The content of these local cartoons might not be moralistic or child friendly, but they can inspire people to read more. There is always beauty in almost any kind of reading. Putrid water in the gutter can also reflect the image of the moon," said a participant at the seminar.
The participant then began to tell a story: "There is a story of a boy who really hated his school. Needless to say, he flunked many tests. He never liked reading at all. He decided to drop out before entering high school to become an auto repair man. Understandably, boys love fast cars and engines.
"The garage was now his new world. Apart from grease oil, engines and cars, there were heaps of local cartoons. It turned out that the boy spent time reading these cartoons and became addicted to reading, not repairing cars. The owner of the garage fired him and told him to go back to school so he could read more. And the boy did."
That boy turned out to be an avid reader. He loves education and when he grows up, he decides to enter monkhood. He is known as Than Chan of Santi Asoke, famous Buddhist cult and works as an educator. Than Chan told this story himself in that seminar. He called these local cartoons "Moon in the gutter".
And we know it is beautiful.
Anchalee Kongrut is a feature writer for the Bangkok Post.