Saturday, March 26, 2005

Is there a place for reading in a world of violence, inequality and moral chaos? Has reading become an irrelevance in our lives? Perhaps the Age of Reason is ending?

READING has become an irrelevance in Malaysia (and perhaps in most societies) today because people are more interested in the latest car models, cellphones, movies and hanging around in shopping malls and burger joints sipping costly tasteless coffees and munching on gourmet sandwiches, and other banalities of modern life. The bookshops here are in a mucky mess, in a chaotic state of vulgarity, overwhelmingly overstocked with nonsense and trivia: trashy paperbacks, compilations of repetitious speeches and seminar proceedings, recycled TV sitcoms, women’s magazines, feng shui guides, women's magazines, how-to-get-richer/ sexier/thinner/happier tomes and, believe it or not, self-improvement manuals. (Go figure that one out.) This state of affairs is perhaps a sad reflection of the cultural shallowness of our age, an age gripped by intellectual paralysis: an age obsessed with acquisition and celebrity, a world defined by envy, greed and excess. There is no place for real literature in a society that seeks instant gratification. Only sad, dumb people read books, some say. Books are a load of crap; books are a waste of time and money, others say. Against the onslaught of such weapons of mass distraction in our lives, reading pales in comparison. Many believe that reading is no longer important to survive and prosper in today's culture.

A society which doesn't or cannot read is one that is unable to have an imaginative engagement with the lives of others. And I think reading is the most fundamental way in which we can enter into the hearts, minds, lives and souls of people who are not of our immediate circle. Reading is all about transcending one’s identity and to learn what one doesn’t already know. Which is why it is all the more important to combine the art of writing with a moral purpose.

In fact, the role of books is more vital than ever in the contemporary world despite the growth of other distractions and the proliferation of apocalyptic predictions about the demise of literature and the end of human civilisation. Books offer us lessons about life. Through reading we discover ourselves and the world around us and beyond. Fiction instructs us by lighting up the dark corridors of our minds; it gives us insights and make us use our brain as it should be used: to think, to reason, to feel, to empathise, to imagine, etc. Books and the reading of them allow us to live many lives within a lifetime.

Clearly, what we are experiencing today is a culture that has forgotten such important stuff as self-sacrifice and selflessness and the simple virtues of life. Sadly, many of us have started to worship the values that we deplore in the past. What used to be wrong is now right and what's right is now weird. The world is a battleground and victory is the only determinant that matters; notions of right and wrong are no longer relevant. I know of some people who tell me that being moral is dumb. What we are obviously experiencing today is a crisis of morality.

Sadly, the book industry in Malaysia doesn't encourage much reading or quality writing either. What can I say, the book industry here is a bullshit world populated by people who, generally, seem to know next to nothing about their own industry, what more of anything else in life, really. And I make no apology for it. Vanity publishing (including self-publishing) is flourishing like lichen on bathroom tiles. Will they ever learn that not all books are meant to be published and read by others? (However, we must not discount the fact that there are the occasional self-published efforts that are excellent in every way; after all, occasionally good manuscripts do slip through the publishers' net for one reason or another.)

Publishers seem to have a very narrow or superficial definition of what a book is. A book is not something you slap a cover on and expect it to sell. There's of course more to it than that. Bad books sell; so we produce more bad books, publishers say, proudly. And so this vicious cycle of mediocrity continues unabated. This says something about the disposable nature of contemporary culture. And herein lies the great paradox of modern publishing. By publishing bad books, publishers are insulting our intelligence; and by buying bad books, we are insulting our own intelligence. They will turn just about anything (and I do mean anything) into books as long as there is enough people willing to buy or pay for them. Are the days of literary taste and discrimination over for good? As readers we must learn to differentiate between good and bad books. And choose to read only the good ones. After all, there's only so much time and resources we have. Writers, on the other hand, must learn to respect their readers; readers have a right to choose not to read their books. Writers must learn to write the kind of books they themselves would want to read. There are lots of good books: commercial and literary fiction, nonfiction, poetry, etc. However, they are very badly stocked by booksellers who don't always trust the intelligence of readers.