As a big bibliophile, I couldn’t have been happier when Bangkok was designated the World Book Capital 2013 by UNESCO. However, since our city is hardly a literary mecca and the Thai people nowadays don’t read as much, I can’t help but wonder why it was selected. According to a 2000 survey by the Thai Library Association, Thais only buy two books and read five books per year on average and spend only 40 minutes a day reading. This begs the question, why are we not bookish?
While our literacy rate is quite high for a developing nation (over 90%), our compulsory education level is only Grade 6. I think that’s probably too low if we want our fellow countrymen to gain a higher understanding of today’s global dynamics. Is this why most people read melodramatic novels and cartoons whereas moralistic tales and self-help books are only for yuppies? Old and new novels are forever being remade as TV drama series and movies, the only difference being new casts.
It makes me wonder, are we Thais stuck in a vicious cycles in our learning process or are we entertained by seeing history repeat itself over and over? Most of our best-selling books are hardly SEA Write Award Winner material. Most are concerned with beauty, money and ego — good combinations for a thriller. How to look your best; how to make lots of money; and ego-stroking celebrity tell-alls seem to fly off the shelf. Books on Buddhism and Dharma are also popular. Gastroporn is loved by foodies. SEA Write Award-winning books’ subjects are usually too tortured or obscured for most readers. Having said that, once in a while a gem is found and becomes famous, like “The Judgment” by Chart Korbjitti, the winning book in 1982. Serious authors rarely become household names.
However, before the existence of SEA Write Awards, throughout our history Siam has produced a great number of classical literatures. Several of our Kings penned poems and stories. King Rama II was one of the most renowned literati, as was his court poet, Soonthornpu, and his works are celebrated still today. King Rama VI composed essays, songs and even translated Shakespeare’s plays into Thai. Our current King Rama IX also wrote several bestsellers and one was even turned into a gloriously illustrated book and a performance. In the olden days people were more poetic and able to banter in rhymes. During the reign of King Narai, courtiers and even commoners were able to speak in verse. What has happened since? Why isn’t the average Thai poetic anymore?
Looking through older magazines and books, words seemed to play a more important role than illustrations and photographs. Writers and editors focused more on precise choices of words and substance than slick photos and stylish layouts. Back then people had more time to read even though there were fewer publications. Now there is too much to read, too many sources. Quantity has outdone quality.
Now, in the digital age, knowledge is easily at our finger tips but personally, I want to re-awaken intellectual pursuits the old-fashioned way — to encourage people to read books. I want to inspire everyone to investigate the world, to discover surprises, to delight oneself, to empower one’s mind, and even to find oneself lost in the page.
It wouldn’t be that hard. Despite a lack of support from the government, publishers are still publishing. New books arrive in stores on a daily basis, and new magazine titles appear. National Book Weeks are held twice a year, in April and October. Book lovers flock to buy piles of books at bargain prices. Thailand’s best authors give talks, sign books and meet fans. Our literary culture seems to be alive and well for a few short weeks but then vanishes until the next fair. If only we could make that passion for the page last. After all, if reading is nourishment for the mind, then you are what you read.