Do Malaysians read books anymore?

AUG 22 — I went to a local university’s library the other day. What I saw resembled a scene from the 8th level of Dantean Librarian hell: A group of students were partying like Chen Long just defected to Malaysia, some were having virtual sex with a Snorlax, two girls were practising their break-dancing skills, three dudes were barbequing sausages and — you get the picture.

I wanted to switch the "PLEASE BE QUIET" signs to "PLEASE READ SOME REAL BOOKS BECAUSE ONLY LOSERS WASTE THE LIBRARY FEES WHICH, INCIDENTALLY, IS WORTH MORE THAN 100 POPIAH ORDERS.”

Do Malaysians read books anymore? I’m not so sure nowadays. When I run my Speed Reading classes I often ask the students what they’re reading at the moment. When the silence gets too thick, I water the question down and ask, “Okay, how many of you read books? And I don’t mean Facebook?”

I may as well have asked how many of them watch TV3 on a regular basis. 

Damn. A few dozen young adults in the class and only a handful of them read anything other than whose Instagram account Selena Gomez spat on. This is more sorrowful than Malaysia failing to get a single Olympic gold; more disappointing than the worst parts of Batman vs Superman combined with those of Suicide Squad; more gloomy than a chicken rice stall without chili.

Should we be surprised, therefore, that this generation seems to be one with more selfies than thoughts? Is there any wonder why the lepak culture’s only adversary appears to be hunting for Pokemon? Are we that astonished when some of our senior managers and leaders talk and write like they bribed their way through Standard 4 English?    

Why read?

First, if you don’t know the value of reading, you should immediately act like a spy i.e. pretend you’ve just had a phone conversation which betrayed your location, then stomp on your Samsung Galaxy Note 7 until it looks like something your pet shat out. Clearly, you haven’t been reading enough – probably due to the 26 hours a day you spend on your phone — and thus I declare unto you that it’s time you got your life back in shape.

So this is what you do (after wrecking your phone). Drive to one of your friends’ house, someone whom you know reads like 50 books a week and has a book next to her bed, in her car, in her shower, etc. Borrow 10 books home and don’t stop reading until you receive a sign from Buddha. 

As you let the warm joyful spring of printed words wash over you, you’ll begin to see that sliced bread, chocolate and sex are really pathetic impostors for what God thought was too good for heaven i.e. books.

From enhancing your memory, to preventing Alzheimer’s, to appearing smarter and sexier (as a result of a kick-ass vocabulary), to helping you relax, to making you the next President of the United States, the advantages of reading over not reading are total no-brainers.

A fervent reader knows what’s going to transpire on Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, etc. way before the average couch potato ever will. This reader would know that — compared to their books — the first show rocks, the second sucks and the last one was par for the course except for the Two Towers (easily the worst of the trilogy, just like in the books).

A regular reader understands the ecstasy of walking into Kinokuniya and gushing at the New Arrivals; s/he also knows the thrill of standing and salivating in front of the "Literature" section and can relate to feeling eight hours go by like a moment.

Likewise, an avid reader isn’t hand-cuffed to his iPhone because he knows that the best time time-killer is a plot to die for; he also doesn’t have to chase a Pikachu around the KLCC park because every good book already augments reality.

An ardent reader has a better vocab and so when s/he writes anything, her positive descriptions of anything won’t be limited to "good", "cool" and "omg that’s so awesome!" S/he’ll be able to draw on an ocean of phrases like "far frackin’ out", "tight-tight-tight", "obscenely proper", "rip-shit" and so on. At the very least s/he’ll be able to appreciate the word options produced by pressing Shift-F7.

Good readers also come across as more "cultured" because they just know more stuff than others. And whilst I believe only losers get hung up about "knowing more", there’s no harm in learning new stuff every day.

Social media and Malaysia’s reading habits

The big difference between learning from books and "learning" from social media? Retention. 

I swear to 1MDB I cannot recall a single frickin’ thing from my WhatsApp chats and Twitter feeds — not even those from yesterday(!). I can, however, remember almost all the plots from the Stephen King novels I read; the best jokes from authors like Marc Olden and Salman Rushdie; the sharpest moments in a Ian McEwan and Gloria Naylor scene; the most playful portions from a Zadie Smith or David Mitchell narrative, and so on. And this is just fiction.

Point is, you see people talking about a Malcolm Gladwell book the way others talk about a Man United game. But nobody even remembers Facebook updates from last week let alone gather round a table to discuss them. Social media simply doesn’t have the "sticking" power of J.K. Rowling. Period.

By the way, do you know how many books the average Malaysian reads? Some surveys – especially those endorsed by politicians – put the rate at 8 to 12 books a year. I’m like, come the hell on! If Malaysians read 12 books a year, which adds up to more than 300 million books read annually, then Christiano Ronaldo is a bak kut teh wholesaler.

You don’t need to be a MacArthur Genius Award winner to know that the true rate is waaay lower. The best estimates put it at 12, too, but with a stroke right between the numbers. That’s right: As a country, we read about half a book a year. This means we pick up Fifty Shades of Grey, read up to 25 shades or half the novel (whichever is shorter), and don’t touch the book again until next year. In my book, this makes "we" total losers.

So, don’t wait. Take your life back. Start winning again. Go to Big Bad Wolf (or any wolf-shop as long as it sells books), get a box and pile up the books so high you can view it from the moon. You’re welcome.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.