Need books to change our lives for the better
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