Where I come from, the trains are packed with commuters glued to their smartphones. Either they are streaming the latest Korean dramas, or they’re scrolling through loads of photos on Instagram. Only once in a blue moon do I see someone reading a book or a Kindle, and more often than not it is a foreigner doing so rather than a local.
Where I come from, every shopping mall has a cinema. Looking at the store directory, the cinema always takes number one spot under the “Entertainment” category. However, if you look for a bookstore you will not find it in this same category. In fact, most shopping malls where I come from don’t have bookstores, and even if they do they’re the sort where the bulk of the store is selling stationery and assessment books rather than actual books for reading.
Where I come from, every house is expected to have a television set. With Smart TVs and services like Netflix, the television is undoubtedly the king of household entertainment. However, go looking for bookshelves when you visit friends’ houses during housewarmings and you will probably not find a single one. In the space of a few decades, books have gone from a regular fixture in peoples’ homes to being virtually non-existent.
It is not surprising that Singaporeans as a whole do not like reading. Here are a few reasons why:
It takes effort to read
Compared with a movie, a comic and a text-only book, which would you rather pick? With movies, YouTube videos and TV, you get both moving visuals and audio packaged together in a manner designed to keep your senses of sight and hearing fully stimulated. Comics and other visual-only media like surfing Instagram lack audio and movement, but the pretty and vivid images are often sufficient to maintain your focus.
And then you have the regular old book, which is a whole seemingly endless string of words. No visuals. No audio. No moving parts. To read, you will need to utilize your own imagination to visualize what the book is talking about. This, of course, takes effort – much more effort on your part than to, let’s say, enjoy a blockbuster movie or read the latest manga. I’m sorry to say that in this day and age of increasingly short attention spans, people who can muster this level of effort are becoming something of a rarity.
Our lives are busy and cluttered with work. With smartphones and laptops with VPN (virtual private network) connections, work demands have infiltrated every facet of our waking hours. I am not sure if we actually get more work done as a result of this intrusion, but one thing I am sure of is that the ever-present stress of always being connected and therefore work-ready drains us of energy. To consider the impact of having less energy, see the following scenario:
Picture yourself at home. It’s 10pm. You’ve just closed your work laptop after answering a flurry of late night emails in preparation for tomorrow’s oh-so-important meeting, and you’re well and truly worn out. However, you don’t want your entire day to have been spent on work, and you cast about for something to do with the little me-time you have left before bedtime. Your eyes fall on your TV and a novel beside it. Which do you pick?
By now, you are probably beginning to understand how our fast-paced lives have subtly but powerfully influenced our likes and dislikes. If this is a disturbing thought to you, good. Because it should be.
There is one more reason why reading is rarely at the top of the list of things we like to do, and this is one that has been relevant ever since our first day of school.
From your first day, you buy school books. Inside these school books await all manner of knowledge that you will be tested on in grueling and stressful exams. If you come from a privileged background, you will probably be enrolled for tuition, where you will undoubtedly purchase supplementary assessment books to practice applying the knowledge you supposedly learnt from your school books.
Is it any wonder then that we Singaporeans have gradually come to associate books with studying? It even shows in our bookstores, where our most popular bookstore chain (see what I did there?) devotes the bulk of its store space not to normal books, but to assessment books, past-year papers and the infamous Ten Year Series.
All in all, the above reasons should adequately explain why few of us would want anything to do with books after we’re done with school and have started work. What I have not explained thus far is why this matters. What’s the big deal, anyway? If it’s about reading the newspapers to keep up on current affairs, TV news channels do a better job and are more updated to boot. And let’s face it, most books are- well, boring. Walls of text which only serve to put you to sleep.
It is true that one can go through life hating books and still lead a complete and full life. But, I daresay that to eschew books entirely is to deny yourself one of the greatest advantages and pleasures life can offer.
Let’s start with non-fiction, because we Singaporeans are so pragmatic. Let’s say you want to learn about the art of investing. You have two main choices. First, you could sign yourself up for courses. These courses given by so-called financial gurus can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars per session, and typically last a few hours over a few days. Alternatively, you could buy a book on the subject and simply read it. A normal paperback can cost as little as $10 but will probably be in the $20-$40 range.
So at first glance, the book option appears to be cheaper. That’s good, right? Still, if we want to compare apples to apples we should consider the amount of content being provided through both methods. Again, I am willing to bet my entire Harry Potter collection that the book will contain more content than any course could ever hope to cover in the span of one or two days.
Putting it plainly, this means that if you’re the sort that values learning new things on a limited budget, books are not only cheaper, they are more value for money in terms of what you stand to gain from reading it.
Not only do non-fiction books provide knowledge, they can also provide new perspectives (which is what The Thought Experiment is all about, by the way). Let me share a personal example:
When I was a kid, I happened to pick up this book called Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert T. Kiyosaki. Reading it changed my entire life – it changed how I viewed money and made me realize I didn’t have to accept the societal expectation that I had to work all my life. Because of a single book, my path in life is radically different from what it was before. I’ve read many other eye-opening books since then, but this was the first one to really shake what I thought I knew about the world. And I am sure there are many more illuminating books out there still, waiting for me to pick them up and read them so they can impart their wisdom to me.
There are some people who love reading non-fiction for its own sake, but I am going to assume that most of you reading this aren’t really the sort that enjoys poring through a treatise on Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (And before you get any ideas, no, I don’t enjoy it either). Instead, I am going to assume most of you are the sort that know of Harry Potter and Game of Thrones through the movies and TV series respectively, rather than the books they originated from.
So, why bother reading fiction if the really good ones get converted into movies and TV shows anyway?
To answer that, let me bring up a point I made earlier in this article: Remember when I said it takes effort to read? How you need to use your own imagination?
This need to use your imagination is why reading fiction is so important. Your imagination is the source of all your creativity. Reading trains your imagination so it gets stronger, like a muscle. At first, your imagination will only be used to help you visualize what the story is trying to tell you as you read it. But as your imagination strengthens and develops, you may find that it will start bringing you to strange and wonderful places even when you’re not reading. What if X hadn’t lied to Y, would she have taken him back? Why did A feel the need to visit planet B in the first place?
Your imagination, believe it or not, is the most powerful tool you have in life. I cannot emphasize this enough. We often feel cornered by life’s expectations, and it is common to fall into the mindset that there is a fixed way in which life develops. You are born, you go to school, you graduate, you find a job, you get married, you start a family, then you retire and finally you die. The truth is that there’s no such thing as a fixed way. We choose what life we want to live, and if we choose to believe that we have no choice, then that is indeed the life we will live. And if you don’t want that life for yourself, then all you need to do is to imagine another way, and follow it.
Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.
– Albert Einstein
Aside from the more “useful” perk of enhancing your imagination and creativity, I also wish to point out that storybooks are fantastic things to immerse yourself in. If you’ve ever found life to be too mundane for your tastes, all you need to do is open a book and you could be on Mars. Or in Hogwarts. Or anywhere, really. Again, I’ll like to share a personal anecdote here to illustrate.
My mother was an English teacher who understood the importance of reading more than most. Therefore, from a young age she actively encouraged my sister and I to read by buying several of Enid Blyton’s books. My favourite was the Magic Faraway Tree, in which three children meet some fantastical folk living in a great tree, and they have all sorts of adventures by visiting strange and mysterious lands. As a child, I was entranced by these adventures, and even after I had devoured these tales I knew I wanted more. I began spending a lot of time in bookstores and libraries, immersed in one story after another.
In short, a lifelong love and fascination of the written word had been born. And I was all the much richer for it.
One thing did strike me, though, as I went about my quest for books to read. As a child, I wondered why libraries were so chock-full of unborrowed books when they were completely free to borrow. Instead, libraries were full of students using the area to study. When Borders closed at Wheelock Place and Page One closed at VivoCity, I was one of the few sorry to see them go. But now that I am older, I think I understand why most of my countrymen don’t share this same love of mine, and I hope that by writing this article I can change that, even if just by a little bit.
If I can convince just one person who reads this article to pick up a book, it will be completely worthwhile. For to give somebody the gift of reading is akin to giving them the key to unlock a hundred worlds or more. And perhaps that is one of the greatest gifts I can ever give anyone. Happy reading, y’all.
A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.
– George RR Martin, the author of Game of Thrones