Why do Thais read so few books each year?
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Why do Thais read so few books each year?

Just after Bangkok has been declared “World Book Capital 2013” by UNESCO, education expert Peter J. Foley wrote in August 2011

Many educators feel the general education level of the average Thai is even more dire than statistics like these and recent dismal test scores for school age children indicate. Abundant, anecdotal evidence suggests that in the rural areas the rate of reading is less than a book a year for most Thais. There is no doubt that Thailand will lose its economic footing unless the poor state of public education is turned around in order to create a highly educated work force. The master key to such a turn- around is to create Thailand as a nation of readers, critical readers, who are life- long learners.

There are many Thais and farangs who throw up their hands and say it is an impossible task to get Thais to be a nation of readers since it is not in the Thai tradition. This is balderdash. As the eminent historian David K. Wyatt points out, Thailand has a rich bibliophilic tradition. Wyatt relates that in some parts of Thailand in the 1890’s the male literacy rates were “considerably in excess of the literacy rates in Europe or America at the time.” In Thailand’s history there were huge numbers of Buddhist temples that included library buildings. These buildings housed Buddhist religious books, or in the case before printing, texts incised into palm leaves. Males were taught to read and write in monasteries.

The point here is that Thailand enjoyed a rich intellectual tradition. This tradition included a ready access to libraries by the male population.

Onsiri Pravattiyagul in an op-ed in the Bangkok Post last month:

If the world doesn’t end in 2012, it will probably end next year when Bangkok becomes “Book Capital of the World”.

While it is not exactly another one of our beloved state initiatives _ Unesco bequeathed the title to the city after Thailand applied _ the authorities are keen to jump on the bandwagon and make the most of it. I am not quite sure what the campaign entails, and honestly speaking, I don’t want to know. It doesn’t say whether reading will be encouraged, never mind how it will do so, or whether books will be on sale throughout the year. Maybe, the authorities might use books to build makeshift dams instead of sandbags when the Great Flood returns.

Let me remind you of one thing before I go on. This is Thailand, where, a few years ago, research showed that Thais read an average of seven lines annually, and now we’re the world’s book capital?

BP: Yes, it is true Thailand is the World Book Capital, but to be honest who even knows of this title? And who knows of previous holders? It is not like World Heritage site status…..

On the topic of Thais not reading and the declaration of Bangkok as the World’s book capital, well-known commentator Nidhi Eoseewong in his column for Matichon Weekly wrote about this a few weeks back. His column was entitled นครหลวงของหนังสือ  [Capital of Books], July 20-26, page 30. BP has summarized his column below:

UNESCO has declared that Bangkok the capital of books. Dont laugh. There is something related that I have been itching to say.

Researchers not that many years stated that Thais, on average, read 7 lines a year. I am not sure if these numbers are still valid today because I have seen many people read many things from their phones and devices to make the average higher than this.

Those 7 lines a year is not that different from Europe in the Middle Ages, but in subsequent centuries Europeans read more. The common explanation was development of education that meant greater literacy, relationship with law and need to use written documents etc…

These things have all happened in developing countries, but they have not increased their level of reading as fast as Europe except countries that have a culture of letters, like Vietnam, South Korea, China etc.

I think that an important factor in reading in Europe at that time was the changes in thinking. You had societal and religous upheavels so Europeans  realized there was not just one truth. Important information for you life can be found from other places than religous leaders and masters/feudal bosses.

After the control over knowledge that religious leaders and masters/feudal bosses had collapsed and people became liberated they began to search for new sources of information. Books were able to be sold. There were costs, but people saw value in the books.

The thing that has not happened in many developing countries including Thailand is there has not been a successful change in culture. The state and religious authorities have been succesful in making many people believe that there is only one truth. Their success in controlling through schools, TV and other media. The knowledge you have is sufficient and there is no need to advance it.In that type of situation, what is the point of reading? There are soap operas, discussions with friends, and radio programs which give you knowledge.

All these programs to promote reading, don’t hope that they will work.

I want to make an observation, and that is as mentioned above, is that Thais are reading more on electronic devices which have started to spread.

The things that Thais read online, I don’t count as reading books. They may read new information, but it things their friends have sent them on Facebook, places to eat. Information is in the same form as before. It is not different from watching Sorayuth S on TV. You get new information. It is fun, but it is new knowledge that will free your mind or information that you will regret not hearing.

Reading books is different from finding new information. I am not so referring to academic books. I mean books that make you different from those that have read them. Whether people change their views after reading is up to the reader.

So what the BMA should do is to change what happens in its own schools. They shouldn’t just get kids to engage in rote memorization. They should discuss in class what ws said by the author and why and what did it mean without focusing on right or wrong answers.

BP: Nidhi doesn’t say so directly, but censoring print is much easier than censoring other forms of communication so traditionally people were left to rely on gossip and verbal communication – which is difficult to verify and check. This is still the case today to some extent. Why read books when you don’t get much value from them and when they just regurgitate what you get on TV? Watching TV is much easier and cheaper too.

Where BP disagrees with Nidhi is his focus on “books”. BP sees more value in Facebook posts by some political commentators than your average romance novel.Censoring online is much more difficult compared with books. Online, people are able to read things they can’t read in written form.* There are also much lower costs to publishing material online.  BP would argue that unless severe restrictions on free speech, through the various ways that speech is criminalized in Thailand, are lifted and the entire education is completely changed, you are not likely to see many more books read. Nevertheless, pandora’s box has been opened by the Internet and well Thais are reading more although they are not necessarily reading more books.

*Slightly changed this sentence after posting.

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