Reading into reading

Mar 16, 2016 01.00PM |

By Felix Cheong

THE man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.

So proclaims American writer Mark Twain. But what did he know? He was a dead white male who lived in a time when the Web was what spiders made and being gay meant you were happy. There was nothing else to do when you had time to kill, save dive into books cover to cover, or dive under the covers with your spouse.

Fast forward 100 years and reading is now a sunset hobby, very much like beyblade and planking. That’s according to the National Arts Council (NAC). Its first National Literary Reading and Writing Survey last year found that only 44 per cent of the 1,015 Singaporeans and PRs surveyed said they read at least one literary book a year. (“Literary” here refers to fiction, poetry, drama, graphic novels, creative non-fiction and probably all our articles on The Middle Ground).

The survey, conducted with the best of intentions and via street interviews, also dredged up what I’ve already known all along – only 11 per cent read books by Singaporean writers. And by Singapore writers, they’re talking about ghost writer Russell Lee and teen romance hack Low Kay Hwa.

Unsurprisingly, this squares with my experience; only two members of my immediate family have read any of my 10 books. Not even my wife has read them all, even when I offered to record my own reading and turned them into audio books she could listen to on the bus. No go.

The NAC’s survey seems to fly in the face of other happy-go-lucky stats. For instance, last year, Singapore boasted one of the highest literacy rates in the world (among residents 15 years and above), at 96.8 per cent. This was higher than the global average of 86.3 per cent. This means, to paraphrase Twain, that Singaporeans can read but choose not to. Well, at least not literary stuff anyway.

And why should you? After all, you can save time by watching the film or TV adaptation. For instance, the BBC has compressed Tolstoy’s hernia-inducing tome, War and Peace, into a high-class, stiff-upper-lip TV series, complete with an eye-candy cast in Lily James and Jessie Buckley. Here is Tolstoy’s epic story as he had never meant it to be, a Cliff’s Notes in splendid sound and colourful vision, corsets and all.

Moreover, we have to live up to our reputation as a pragmatic people who give no quarter and ask for $10 in change. Why read anything literary when, as English poet W.H. Auden says, “poetry makes nothing happen”? Mr Lee Kuan Yew must have taken this to heart, for he once declared that “poetry [and by extension, anything literary] is a luxury we cannot afford”.

This explains the anomaly that while Singapore students are driven to drop literature in droves, we still claim the Angus Ross Prize (awarded to the best performing non-British candidate in the ‘A’ Level English Literature exam) year after year. In fact, Singapore has monopolised the prize since its inception in 1987 (with the exception of 2000). It was awarded last year to Hwa Chong Institution student Raymond Scott Lee.

This is because prizes make people sit up and take notice. Rankings bring in investors and expats who believe we’re a cultured society (until they see our Third World manners upclose at the food court), that we’re closer to an island paradise than the Singapore Tourism Board brochures depict. That’s the pragmatic trade-off. It’s a gambit to say we’ve arrived as a First World nation, a way to assert our insecurity.

As a writer, I am, of course, resigned to this state of affairs. It hasn’t changed since I published my first book in 1998. And it won’t be changing anytime soon. Just don’t read too much into it. Literally.


Featured image by Natassya Diana.

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