Cultivating reading


The Subang Jaya Book Exchange Programme is a community initiative that allows children like Loh Ving Yue, 10, to exchange and read books for free.

The Subang Jaya Book Exchange Programme is a community initiative that allows children like Loh Ving Yue, 10, to exchange and read books for free.

Books are a window to infinite views and imagi-nation, and Malaysians may want to enrich their lives by reading more.

EACH individual has their own way of winding down and spending their “me-time”. For some, it might be exercising or playing sports, being pampered at a spa or shopping while others enjoy a good read with a cup of coffee.

Some people read to consume knowledge – reading shapes their world view. Some read to pass the time, waiting for a bus or in the train. Some read to escape into a world that doesn’t exist. Some read while doing their “business” (Oh come on, admit it!).

With about a 90% adult literacy rate, Malaysians generally have access to books. So I was quite surprised to find out that a study conducted in 2005 showed that Malaysians read an average of two books a year and that as Malaysians grow older, they read less.

Perhaps the statistics are flawed. After all, how can we quantify behaviour? Being a curious cat, I asked Umapagan Ampikaipakan, who runs a book club in Penang and KL, what he thought about the reading habits of Malaysians and if reading was limited to a few.

“I don’t think we don’t want to read, I think we don’t know where to start,” he said. “Because we aren’t exposed to literature in schools and so we have no idea how amazing it can be. Reading is something taught, it isn’t innate and needs to be developed.”

Hadi Khalid, founder of Distro Buku, a mobile bookstore, also shared his thoughts: “In all honesty, Malaysians do not have a good reading culture. This contradicts our aspiration to become a developed nation.

“We lack ‘proper’ bookstores, not just a ‘hypermarket’ of books where consumers go only to buy books on sale, but a bookstore that acts as a clubhouse for readers where talks, discussions and forums can be held.”

Utilising the concept of a distributor, Distro Buku also sells magazines, CDs, DVDs and T-shirts. Hadi feels that Malaysian readers want something different from what is available in the conventional bookstores.

“We do have readers; we read the newspaper, online blogs and occasionally magazines, but what we lack are people who buy books.

There is a lack of appreciation for books and we feel that our greatest challenge is to contribute towards the development of a reading culture and general appreciation for books. Our survival and success depends heavily on both.”

He further opined, “But the future of our literary scene is promising as we have so many talented writers and we are developing with the advent of independent publishing houses such as Silverfish, Matahari, Sindiket Soljah, Sang Freud Press, Stormkitchen, DuBook Press and FIXI.”

I have always assumed readings and book clubs are exclusive. I was only introduced to readings two years ago, but it was organised by a small group of people in a small social setting where everyone already knew each other. I felt awkward and the reception seemed cold. Perhaps because the reading scene is so small, they become a clique of their own.

But Uma proved to be otherwise.

“The book club we run is open to the public and anyone can show up whether or not they’ve read the book. It’s more of an excuse for a social gathering where people can exchange ideas and debate on issues. The book is just a starting point,” he said.

“I find that readings are better attended than they used to be. I’ve seen a significant shift from 2006 till now. I was really impressed at the literature scene at the recent Arts for Grabs at the Annexe (Central Market, KL) because there was a huge demographic of individuals who attended, not just the arty types, but all sorts. Borders, Kinokuniya and MPH have readings monthly, but they also have them in smaller settings like at Silverfish or art galleries.”

Books are increasingly pricey. It’s a pinch to my purse every time I’m out looking for a new book and I often think twice (sometimes thrice!) and spend some time contemplating before checking out a book.

Uma also feels that Malaysians generally do not see the value in reading, but price is not the issue.

“Of course niche books are expensive, even overseas. But paperbacks are generally inexpensive. It’s just that we’d rather spend RM50 on pirated DVDs than on a good book.

To inculcate a reading culture, you have to get both kids and adults reading. Adults should be motivated to attend book clubs and social events, to introduce them to things they didn’t find interesting, and make it interesting.”

Perhaps it doesn’t matter how high readership is in terms of numbers and percentages. Statistics are just numbers after all. Malaysia does not have a good track record in maintaining and updating studies so they mean nothing and we can’t know how credible these numbers are. Numbers are, after all, also often used flippantly by ministers to give the impression of success.

Sure, a reading public is testament to a progressive and developed country, but without adequate space and freedom for debates and discussions to take place and more importantly, to have access to all kinds of books, controversial or otherwise, we will not nurture a learned, mature and confident public.

For me, reading is a personal journey; a window to infinite views and imagination at your behest.

Regardless of your preferences — be it bloody macabre or sensuous romance, economics for dummies or ethnologies of the world — through the words of others you learn more about yourself as you continue to define and re-define your world views.

I’m an advocate of self-learning and I believe that if we take the initiative to get involved and be interested in expanding our views, for our own good and self improvement, then perhaps reading will come naturally and no ambiguous campaign will be needed to coerce people into the reading habit.

Sharyn Shufiyan believes that cultures adorn a society, much like tapestry. She puts on an anthropological hat to discuss Malaysia’s cultures, subcultures and society (ies). Write to her at star2@thestar.com.my

Sharyn Shufiyan

Sharyn Shufiyan

Sharyn Shufiyan offers a commentary and her views on what’s happening in society.