The annual book fair returned last week and, as in previous years, it came with new statistics on reading. The Chulalongkorn University study delivered a few surprises, especially for those who stick to the old assumption that "Thais don't read".
Sponsored by the Publishers and Booksellers Association of Thailand, organisers of the ongoing Bangkok International Book Fair, the study covered 3,232 respondents aged 15-69 in eight major provinces.
Twelve per cent said they don’t do any reading outside studies or work, citing a lack of time, of interest or bad eyesight.
Among those who said they read, only 40 per cent did so more than three days a week. On average, members of this group spend 46 minutes per day on leisure-time reading. Popular stuff are websites, books, newspapers and magazines.
The average reading time across all groups is 26 minutes a day. That figure is significantly lower than the 37 minutes recorded by a much larger survey conducted by the National Statistical Office (NSO) in 2013. That survey covered over 50,000 households nationwide and concluded that 81.1 per cent of population, or over 50 million of us, do read. Constituting the biggest group of readers were children – 95.1 per cent of them read regularly.
An interesting finding was that homes were the most popular places for reading, not libraries. The next most popular were public places and workplaces.
What do we read? Print materials still rule, followed by websites via PCs, tablets and smartphones. Among print materials, newspapers accounted for 73.7 per cent of reading material, followed by magazines. The most popular books were those about religion, novels and comic books.
The Chulalongkorn University survey showed that 41.4 per cent of those who read said they spent more time on websites than on print material.
This chimes with market research released last October, which showed that Internet users in Thailand spend 3.1 hours a day on their mobile phones. This compares to 2.6 hours spent watching television, 1.5 hours dedicated to PC/laptop time and 0.7 hours on tablets, according the study UK-based DJS Research.
So, are Thais really reading less?
According to the organiser, last year’s Bangkok book fair welcomed 1.9 million visitors, who spent about Bt700 million – a record high. An exhibitor survey also showed that 34 per cent witnessed more visitors to their booths than the previous year. They attributed the increase to new titles and promotions, affordability, limited editions and the location of their booths.
The evidence suggests a growing appetite for reading among Thais.
Yet, a lot more could be done to feed that hunger among people of all ages, especially if we believe that reading broadens knowledge, offers fresh ideas and sparks new thinking.
In the NSO’s 2013 survey, 39 per cent of respondents said they would read more if book prices were lower. 26.3 per cent suggested that parents should take the lead. Many also said schools and city authorities should improve public reading spaces and increase the number of mobile libraries.
All those suggestions should be taken seriously.
Currently publishers use attractive cover designs and quality paper to lure readers, but that means the average price of a novel is nearly Bt200 – more than half the minimum wage. In a country where millions still earn the minimum wage, that pricing is absurd.
For years, provinces have had their own libraries. Yet few are properly equipped. (Most comprise just a large room stocked with magazines.) Though they now get a bigger slice of national budget, local administrative bodies pay more attention to road construction than to soft infrastructure like books. Some schools now depend on donations for their reading material. No surprise, then, that becoming a librarian is among the least popular career options in Thailand.
It’s also no surprise that homes are where most of us read. Silence in Bangkok’s few public parks is regularly disturbed by events like aerobic fitness sessions, with their pumping music. Meanwhile the 40-minute BTS ride from Bang Na to Mor Chit would be long enough to finish a comic book, if it weren’t for the incessant chatter of TV commercials and people talking on their phones.
What more that can be done? How about a national general knowledge contest that would require competitors read a broad range of material?
Businesses are helping refurbish libraries and donate books. But they could do much more if we had an agency that gathered information on the reading needs of each community and how its library could meet them. Bookstores offer monthly lists of their top 10 best-sellers, but there is no neutral ratings agency to tell us which are the most popular books in Thailand.
One recent innovation that deserves recognition is Siam Cement Group’s list of 50 book titles recommended for Thais. Hopefully, these kinds of efforts will continue, and receive endorsement and aid from the government and the private sector.
Though our reading appetite may be growing, it remains modest. For a shocking indicator, consider that the Constitution Drafting Committee’s web page (http://goo.gl/UZFZV8), though launched months ago, had drawn a mere 14,939 visitors as of Sunday.
Of course, part of the reason for the lack of interest might be because Thailand has had far too many Constitutions. Yet the number of visitors constitutes just 0.2 per cent of our population of 65 million, despite the fact that the new Constitution will rule all.
Thai society desperately needs more readers.