Opinion: Why Don’t Thais Read?

A file photo from the 2017 National Book Week in Bangkok.
A file photo from the 2017 National Book Week in Bangkok.

By Tayo Tunyathon Koonprasert

At 13, having just moved back to Bangkok after seven years in the United States, I asked my mom to take me to the National Library on Samsen Road.

I confidently walked through the grand entrance, excited about finding a cozy corner—maybe with beanbag chairs—and a good novel. Getting lost in a book for hours was something I loved doing back in the States. Instead, I was welcomed by a dank interior, ladders and tarp-covered bookshelves.

I found the reception desk and asked the woman sitting there, “Where is the English language book section?”

The librarian raised an eyebrow at me. “We don’t have one, dear.”

“When will you have one then?”

“We’re undergoing renovation. We don’t have plans to bring in English books.”

“Why not?” I demanded.

My mom dragged me away. My Americanized teenage self had a lot to learn.

I realized soon after that the National Library is a depository, not a public library as I had hoped. I also learned that most Thai people didn’t love leisurely reading as I do. A reading culture is nonexistent among Thais – a reality that persists today, 15 years later.

A file photo from the 2017 National Book Week in Bangkok.
A file photo from the 2017 National Book Week in Bangkok.

A “reading culture”, as defined by Professor Aurasri Ngamwittayaphong, is the behavior of continuous reading until it becomes a personal habit that guides one’s way of life, such that the reader sees the benefits of reading and promotes it to others. In Thailand, such a culture has not been fostered.

This is not to say that Thais don’t read. Thais have an adult literacy rate of 93 percent. However, their reading is often limited to lecture notes, comics, Pantip forums, social media posts, and the occasional news article. A study by the Publishers and Booksellers’ Association of Thailand found that 88 percent of the population spends only 28 minutes a day reading. Forty percent doesn’t read books at all.

This is concerning because there are many benefits to reading. It broadens one’s knowledge, offers new perspectives and sparks creative thinking. Many of these benefits are best reaped at an early age. Current public-school curriculums, however, do not assign many readings as homework. Rather, students are given slides and lecture notes. They are spoon-fed summarized information, rather than encouraged to read, analyze, and synthesize it themselves. This hinders the cognitive development of Thai youth and their ability to think critically.

Schoolchildren receive new library books in Khon Kaen province on Feb. 20, 2018.
Schoolchildren receive new library books in Khon Kaen province on Feb. 20, 2018.

Unfortunately, there are many socioeconomic barriers towards picking up a book for Thais. For many, the liberty of having free time to read is a privilege. For Thai youth, schoolwork is often already demanding enough. In between rushing from school to tutoring lessons on weekdays and weekends alike, doing homework and getting enough sleep, when will they find the time to read? For adults, countless hours are lost to morning and evening commutes. It is understandable why many would rather plop down in front of the television at the end of a long day and watch lakorn instead.

For others, books are too expensive. The average price of a book is 200 baht while books in English can go well over 1,000 baht. In a survey conducted by the National Statistical Office of Thailand, 39 percent of respondents said they would read more if book prices were lower. For Thais living outside of Bangkok, there is an overall lack of free reading resources. Community and provincial libraries are underfunded and poorly managed. They are often stocked with outdated reading materials and operate with inadequate hours.

Reading, therefore, is an activity that can be afforded only by those who have the privilege of both time and money.

In recent years, there have been commendable initiatives to provide the public with access to books. Public libraries such as TK Park and the Bangkok City Library are examples, while the Neilson Hays Library offers the largest collection of English-language books. Membership prices at Neilson Hays, however, are a whopping 2,500 baht per year for adults and 1,700 baht for children. Public libraries have succumbed to the privilege paradox as well—accessible only for those who can pay the high membership fees or even the pricey BTS or MRT fares to get there.

In the long term the government must provide more funding to public libraries, subsidize the costs of books and improve school curriculums. But there is something we each can do to improve the situation. There is always time to read if we make the time. Instead of spending those long skytrain rides mindlessly browsing your friends’ travel pictures on Instagram, why not open up a book and unravel a whole new world? Instead of watching the two-hour nightly lakorn, why not buy the narrative lakorn guides and read them instead?

We can each try to read more. Every little word counts. Every page counts. We just have to keep turning the pages.

Students in Tak province read in their school library on May 10, 2018.
Students in Tak province read in their school library on May 10, 2018.

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Tayo Tunyathon Koonprasert is a book lover and graduate student at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.