What Happened to Reading for Fun?

The Singapore National Library Board (NLB) recently launched a National Reading Movement to encourage local folks to “read more, read widely and read together”. Yes, the tagline sounds unimaginative, but it’s a 5-year campaign and promises loads of “exciting” programmes to engage adults to read. This follows a dip in NLB’s borrowing records for last year, and the National Literary Reading and Writing survey in March that revealed that more than half of the respondents had not read a literary book in the last one year.

In case you’re thinking that I’m trying to be cynical here, I’m declaring that I’ve been a long-time supporter of NLB’s efforts. In fact, I think NLB manages one of the best national libraries in the region, if not the world. One can find a public or community library in almost every residential town, complete with the latest collections and welcoming reading spaces for both young and old. Check-outs are done at automatic machines; ebooks are available 24/7 online for borrowing and downloading; Singaporeans get to loan up to 8 books for free each time; book themes are curated on a regular basis; outreach activities are organized frequently for the public. The list goes on. 

Yet, Singapore is still not a reading nation.

There are so many reasons we are not. Some blame it on the internet – everyone’s either spending their free time watching YouTube or updating their social media posts. Others blame it on our obsession with academic results, because there are parents who believe reading fiction and spending a morning at the library are a waste of time; their kids are better off attending an enrichment class (which, by the way, enriches neither the mind nor the life of the kid). 

I’m not sure if NLB will be successful with the campaign, because it is already an uphill task to interest kids in reading, and engaging adults will be even tougher, amid the competition for their time from work, family and other forms of entertainment. 

As I look back at my own reading journey, I’m glad I grew up with little pocket money to spare, and even fewer entertainment options, because that left me with the public library where I could enjoy air-conditioning and hours of imaginative entertainment – all for free. The same is not true for kids today.

Take my daughter for example. She’s barely more than two and a half years old, and she has already discovered that the TV and smartphone offer more entertaining options than her shelf of baby board books, despite my attempt to keep electronic devices from her for as long as I can. These days, she asks for her favourite videos in the morning, instead of her favourite books. Her grandparents and father usually relent, because it’s a welcoming alternative to having to give an active child their full attention when they have so much to do – the videos keep her occupied. I try not to, but when the whining gets bad, I usually do, because I want my child to see reading as something enjoyable, not something she wants to get done quickly so that she can move on to something she likes better. However, when she does choose to sit down with a book, I try my best to make the reading session as enjoyable as I can. What has happened is that my little one will still opt to read a book over the TV sometimes, provided I’m the one reading it with her.

Getting adults to read will be much more complicated. I see commuters hunched over their phones and tablets all the time (no, they’re not reading ebooks on their devices), few over a book, and even fewer over a fiction book. NLB has started to create QR codes that train commuters can scan and download recommended reads while travelling. Some have recommended putting free books at popular cafes like Starbucks where people are more relaxed and more likely to pick up a book.

I don’t have a solution for NLB, because I can’t even get my husband or close friends to love reading like I do. 

But I sure hope NLB will succeed.

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