Friday, October 19, 2007


For Thais to read more, they must come to see books as sanook. That's why they read comic books. Now if we could only convince them that even books without pictures can be sanook, too.

Govt must act on low reading rates
Thailand needs to promote a culture of literacy via upgraded libraries and subsidies for book production

Published on October 19, 2007

To say that a reading culture is not one of Thailand's strong suits is a gross understatement. Reading, either as a means of self-improvement or just pleasurable escapism, has never been associated with the idea of fun in the Thai social context. Indeed most Thais, if pressed, would admit that reading, a solitary activity, is the direct opposite of having a good time. People who read books are widely frowned upon as introverted, too serious, unsociable or lacking in social skills. Most Thais would rather engage in gregarious group activities like eating, drinking, watching television or movies, or just talking all of which they find more enjoyable and which, usually, makes little demand on their intellect. This pattern of behaviour cuts across socio-economic classes.

We are reminded of the unpopularity of reading in this country every time publishers organise their book fairs. With this year's Book Expo being held at Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre, it is reported that the average Thai reads just two books per year and outlays a meagre Bt260 for these. Compare this to Vietnam, where the average person finishes about 60 books a year, and Singapore with 45, and one can't help but worry about our poor reading culture.

The question that comes to mind is, how is Thailand going to compete in the global marketplace if people do not read enough to acquire knowledge, broaden their horizons, or deepen their understanding of what is going on in their society and the world at large?

This year's book exposition organised by the Publishers and Booksellers Association of Thailand (PUBAT) in Bangkok, which runs until October 28, is expected to attract 1.2 million visitors from all over the country. As with similar expositions, publishers try to promote new titles and reduce book inventories by offering big discounts. It is a time when readers of all ages splurge on books.

While it is heartening to know a sustained campaign to promote a love of reading among the young has produced new generations of avid readers, the problem is they are concentrated in middle-class families who have the money to spend on books to indulge their children. The sad truth is that, for the majority of kids and budding readers in the provinces and rural communities, book prices are way beyond their means.

Worse, public and school libraries whose role it is to bridge the gap between rich and poor in terms of acquisition of knowledge, by offering access to quality books at little or no cost have failed miserably to serve their intended purpose.

Most local governments and schools do not attach importance to their library services and usually do not allocate enough financial resources to maintain good collections of books.

Thailand has one library to serve every 84,000 citizens. This compares unfavourably with South Korea, which is reported to have one library for every 20,000 people. Some book publishers point to the correlation between a country's economic performance and its citizens' reading habits.

According to a survey conducted jointly by PUBAT and the Thai Health Promotion Foundation, efforts to promote a love of reading among the young still face serious hurdles. Too many Thais are too comfortable in relatively passive activities like listening to the radio or watching TV, while the Internet, computer games and night-time entertainment also take up big chunks of people's leisure time.

While it is important that Thailand does its best to get its citizens to read more particularly the young policy-makers, book publishers, booksellers, school administrators, social workers and the mass media must put their heads together to find ways to make books more accessible to all.

For a start, the price of the average book, at over Bt100, is too steep when most people spend only around Bt25 for a decent meal. At a time when the size of the domestic book market is still small, book prices should be brought down to a level in line with the cost of living, perhaps through government subsidies. The subsidies could then be gradually scaled back as the Thai book market grows, and when economies of scale come into play and bring the cost of book production lower.

The Nation

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