Need books to change our lives for the bet­ter

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

Fifty-eight per­cent of Chi­nese read at least one book last year, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est na­tional read­ing sur­vey. The fig­ure is 2.4 per­cent­age points lower than that in 1999 when the an­nual sur­vey was in­tro­duced. Com­pared with other coun­tries, Chi­nese read fewer books a year (4.56) than Amer­i­cans (7), Ja­panese (8.5) and South Kore­ans (11).

The im­por­tance of read­ing can­not be over­stated. As UNESCO Direc­tor-Gen­eral Irina Bokova said on April 23, World Book Day, books are “the em­bod­i­ment of cre­ativ­ity, the de­sire to share ideas and knowl­edge, to in­spire un­der­stand­ing, dia­logue and tol­er­ance”.

Dur­ing the past 15 years, the Chi­nese econ­omy has grown more than five times and per capita dis­pos­able in­come has nearly tripled. So is there a cor­re­la­tion be­tween pros­per­ity and the wan­ing love for books?

More than 40 per­cent of the peo­ple cov­ered by the sur­vey said they don’t get enough time to read books, with over one-third say­ing read­ing has never been their hobby. Other ma­jor rea­sons cited by peo­ple for stay­ing away from books are, not know­ing what to read, un­able to find in­ter­est­ing books and pref­er­ence for TV pro­grams.

Yet some schol­ars say there is no cause for worry, be­cause peo­ple have not stopped read­ing— they have switched to on­line con­tents. As the sur­vey found, a typ­i­cal Chi­nese spends 33 min­utes a day read­ing con­tents on mo­bile phones and 18 min­utes read­ing books.

Dig­i­tal read­ing is handy com­pared with read­ing printed books, as nearly half of China’s pop­u­la­tion has ac­cess to the In­ter­net, and one in ev­ery two Chi­nese has a smart­phone. More books are avail­able on­line, on smartphones and tablets.

E-read­ing does have its ad­van­tages: one can read any­where, any­time al­most free of charge.

Peo­ple in megac­i­ties such as Bei­jing and Shang­hai read books and news, watch soap op­eras and lis­ten to mu­sic on smartphones dur­ing their te­dious com­mute to and from work. But by the time they re­turn home, they are too tired to read any book.

But e-read­ing has its dis­ad­van­tages too. Peo­ple can get dis­tracted by click­ing one hy­per­link af­ter an­other and end up spend­ing hours on things they didn’t in­tend to read. Also, peo­ple can­not be cer­tain what they are read­ing is true for lack of au­then­ti­ca­tion. Plus, on­line con­tents need short at­ten­tion spans and can make one impatient while read­ing any­thing that is longer than 500 words or de­mands deep think­ing.

Sven Birk­erts, au­thor of Guten­berg Ele­gies, coined the term “deep read­ing”: the slow and med­i­ta­tive pos­ses­sion of a book. Deep read­ing de­mands and de­vel­ops an­a­lyt­i­cal rea­son­ing and ana­log­i­cal skills. It makes us re­flect on how we are con­nected to the world and helps us un­der­stand our lives through other peo­ple’s lan­guages and voices.

The gov­ern­ment launched the “na­tional read­ing cam­paign” last year. And many events were or­ga­nized on­World Book Day this year to raise peo­ple’s aware­ness about read­ing. But read­ing can­not be sus­tained by any cam­paign.

To en­cour­age more peo­ple to read, per­haps the gov­ern­ment should build more li­braries. China has only one li­brary for ev­ery 460,000 peo­ple, while the in­ter­na­tional stan­dard is one for ev­ery 50,000. The coun­try aims to in­crease its public li­brary membership from 20.2 mil­lion in 2010 to 50.5 mil­lion this year. But if this goal is met, it will cover only 3.6 per­cent of the to­tal pop­u­la­tion. The cor­re­spond­ing fig­ures for the US and the UK are about 67 per­cent and 58 per­cent.

There are more public li­braries than Star­bucks and McDon­alds in the US. In China, how­ever, you have to travel long dis­tances even in big cities to visit a li­brary. Only when ev­ery com­mu­nity has a li­brary can read­ing be­come part of our daily lives. The au­thor is a se­nior edi­tor with China Daily. Yaoy­ing@chi­nadaily.com.cn

CAI MENG / CHINA DAILY

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