Friday, November 05, 2010

Better read than dead

With the sprouting of bookstores, are more books being read? S.H. LIM pokes around the Malaysian book industry to find out and to learn where reading fiction fits into our culture

IT’S NOT UNCOMMON to see folks holding onto the handrail with one hand, a novel in the other. That’s on London Underground trains, where bodies squeeze against bodies and space, much less reading room, is at a premium during rush hour. Same in Hong Kong and Taiwan. But I can’t say the same is observed here. Perhaps we’ve not quite developed a reading culture, much less one that reads fiction. Yet bookstores have mushroomed in the Klang Valley. Every shopping mall has a large one, and on weekends people roam the shelves, thumbing through books.

I asked several people—writers, reviewers, bloggers, editors, publishers, distributors, marketers, English instructors and college students—about our reading culture, and in particular our reading of fiction. Their views are not dissimilar.

Charlene Rajendran, a local writer-and-poet, and an instructor in a university on the island south says, ‘Even though there is a noticeable increase of bookshops, and a marked rise in the amount of space allocated to books in a range of publications from newspapers to magazines, etc., I still think the “reading culture” is very emaciated. Not enough muscle and few healthy glowing skins that radiate inner depth.’

Her observations are shared by someone who lives inside the book industry, Eric Forbes of MPH Publishing. ‘Seriously, I don’t think we have much of a reading culture in Malaysia. I’m afraid we are a long, long way from that. Most of the adults I know don’t read. Perhaps they only read the newspaper and a magazine or two. Perhaps they only read stuff related to work. And that’s about it. I know most graduates stop reading after they join the workforce.’

One person from Kinokuniya says, ‘Contrary to this observation [sprouting of more bookstores], the book market has not expanded much. Rather, the better bookstores have gained more market share from lesser competitors.’

Amir Muhammad, writer, filmmaker and publisher, in his characteristic tongue-in-cheek way, posits that ‘the news we get in Malaysian papers already seems so outlandish, like a tragicomic magic realist serial novel of uncertain length, unpredictable trajectory and dubious coherence. But having said that, many Malay novels now can sell 50,000 copies with relative ease, so something is obviously happening.’

These works tend to be romances. Amir informs that ‘the most popular sub-genre is inspired by the Indonesian hit, Ayat-Ayat Cinta, which was set in Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, and whose appeal is superbly parodied in Malaysia’s Karipap-Karipap Cinta.’

The university students I talk to confess that they and their colleagues don’t read much outside their prescribed texts. The reasons for this arise from, ‘No time’, ‘Too much homework’, or ‘Exams’. But the reasons for our lack of engagement with books and in particular with imaginative works—fiction as opposed to nonfiction—can’t be just about the lack of time. The popularity of Facebook and Twitter among us and the hours people spend updating, posting and responding negate this time argument. Perhaps the truth is that, as Eric says, ‘Reading is still not a priority in the life of most Malaysians. To most people, there are always other things that are more important than reading. Some people consider reading a waste of time and of one’s life.’

Maybe books are just still too expensive for the majority of us. One person in the book industry says, ‘Even the well-to-do think books are expensive and so do not read. What more those who are not so well-to-do?’ To respond to the market of readers who are seeking a less expensive way to feed this habit, discount bookstores and used-books outlets like Pay Less Books have peppered our urban landscape. Our public libraries can play a greater role here, by merely making fiction more readily available.

Perhaps it’s the fact that we’re a culture dominated by commerce and industry. Time is money so if we choose to read, we read self-help books, business books, feng shui ones, which help us position ourselves to receive health and wealth. MPH informs that 10 per cent of its total sales come from fiction; Kinokuniya reveals 20 per cent; and Berjaya Books (owner of Borders) says theirs is 30 per cent.

But there are consequences for a culture that doesn’t read, including the reading of fiction. When we fail to read, we might as well not be literate because there’s no difference between the person who can’t read and the person who doesn’t read. Both can’t participate in the ensuing dialogue on existential issues. Some will go so far to assert that only those who read fiction have the capacity to understand the human condition. However, not reading also means missing out on accessible pleasure. One reader in the book industry reveals, ‘As a reader myself, I realise that everyone has preferences on what they want to spend reading but am constantly surprised by recommendations given by colleagues, making reading such a serendipitous adventure.’

Ah, the pleasure of adventure.

Reproduced from the November 2010 issue of Time Out Kuala Lumpur


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