WHO says that Malaysians do not read or do not read enough? Every morning as I drive to work, I see an old man under the highway bridge reading the newspaper, as I see other people avidly reading newspapers and magazines at the barber salon, in coffee shops or in waiting rooms at petrol stations.
More and more people are reading from their iPads and other digital sources. Increasingly, libraries are expanding their digital resources and increasingly, university students are accessing such resources. Any survey of the reading culture and reading habits must now go beyond the print medium and consider web and Internet reading habits.
How many books do school libraries have per student? What kinds of books do schools have beyond syllabus-related books? What is the balance between religious books and books about science, social sciences and humanities? What are the life-changing books students and adults read? Are the books read only to reaffirm beliefs, narrow attitudes of all kinds and not to question or think?
Many at the recently-concluded Big Bad Wolf book fair spent anywhere from several hundred to several thousand ringgit on books.
Sale at Mines Convention Centre. NSTP/Pic by Mokhsin Abidin
How many Malaysians have bookshelves at home and what books are on them? How many have access to eBooks and other digital materials? Do Malaysians read books from other times, other cultures, other philosophies and other ideologies?
The question of reading culture is related to thinking culture and to basic economics and affordability as well as a way to gauge the priority given to books vis a vis to other necessities of life.
News reports of the hardcore poor, of the masses who do not have to pay taxes, of financial and other handouts given to the people by the authorities and charitable organisations, are all indicators of capacity and affordability of the people. The matter of a reading culture must be asked in relation to the realities of poverty, including environmental and intellectual poverty, evidenced, for instance, by dilapidated homes with little space for reading or serious study.
In urban areas, we have MPH, Kinokuniya, Borders, BookExcess, Popular, Times and other bookshop where books, mainly in English, Malay and Chinese, are available. In order to be as attractive as these world-class bookstores, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka may need to review its business model for its outlets to attract customers, such as by diversifying its sales products. Reconsidering DBP's business and marketing model does not diminish its role as the guardian of the Malay language, but its reviewed business model might enhance its Malay language promotion role.
Visiting bookshops, like visiting book exhibitions, can nurture a reading and writing culture. Families, individuals young and old, women and men of all races head to book fairs. They come with suitcases, trolleys, backpacks and other means to carry home all kinds of books. Those who visited the recent Big Bad Wolf book fair spent anywhere from several hundred to several thousand ringgit on books. When the fair was extended to 24 hours during weekends, hundreds stayed on to browse through the books, such as they might have spent browsing the Internet at night.
The question is no longer whether Malaysians read or how many books they read, but what type of books are they reading. Nurturing a reading culture can eliminate language barriers as well as socio-economic and intellectual divides.
What kind of books will shape Malaysian minds to become enlightened, open, questioning, critical and appreciative of other worlds, other times and other cultures they are not familiar with? What type of books nurtures questioning thought patterns that rejuvenate, enrich, ennoble and inspire across life's seasons? There is a continuing need to create conditions of access for communities to find great books.
Are the reading ambassadors appointed by the National Library, namely, Datuk Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor Al-Masrie, Datuk Seri Michelle Yeoh and Tun Mahathir Mohammed, exemplars of a reading and fine thinking culture? Do the state and parliamentary representatives read and does what they read reflect on their leadership abilities? Is reading one of the criteria needed to make for a winnable political candidate?
Datuk Dr Ibrahim Ahmad Bajunid | email@example.com Writer is a deputy vice-chancellor, INTI Laureate International University New Straits Times Columnist 27 December 2012