Uncultivated Reading Culture

Is a picture worth a thousand words? For my sixteen-year old nephew who was brought up and educated in Hong Kong and has been studying in a Canadian high school since last year, the answer is a definite yes. He would far prefer watching videos or playing video games on the internet than reading anything in words. Parents in Hong Kong would probably agree that the same can be said of many of his peers.

Questions abound in my mind. Is the general aversion to reading in society taking a toll on the youngsters’ cultural inclination? Indeed, many Hong Kong parents who are not themselves habitual readers either do not show particular interest or lack the time in persuading their kids to spend time in reading rather than playing video games. How will this disinterest in reading affect Hong Kong teenagers’ (my nephew’s included) schooling and future? What can be done by Hong Kong’s educational officials and professionals to promote greater interest in reading among youngsters and a sustained reading habit into their adulthood? How can adults be persuaded to adopt the same?

Against a backdrop of a society steeped in a celebrity-worshipping culture and peeping tom mentality, where a number of nude photographs allegedly of some celebrity artists posted on the internet can hype up more interest in online readership than any serious journalistic or literary work can, no one should find it surprising that Hong Kong has so often been dubbed a philistine society.

While it is true that the annually held Hong Kong Book Fair has been attracting a great following, the majority of the books on display are either in the category of collations of short essays that have appeared previously in newspaper columns or in the self-help category (“how to” books). This peculiarity goes some way to showing that there is a serious deficiency in creative literary skills in Hong Kong. Besides, if one wanted to find a Chinese book that deals with serious economic, political or social issues (academic books aside), one would most likely be disappointed. On top of this lack of high quality Chinese publications, 70 percent of the market share is controlled by a mainland-based publishing group, which is a natural deterrent to aspiring local authors and writers. The shutting down of the old-time publishing house (博益) despite its still being a viable commercial concern is further proof that the space in which to nurture creative literary talents is ever growing smaller.

Perhaps the lack of locally produced quality works owes much to the fact that there is a dwindling interest in such works. People indeed seem to prefer graphics to words, as newspapers have responded by splashing large images across front pages, taking up spaces that used to be occupied by texts. If people do not even want to read long texts in newspapers, they probably would not bother to read books, much less books in another language like English.

I remember that in my primary school days, my summer holidays were usually spent in reading martial arts and chivalry fiction by Jin Yong (金庸), as well as novels by contemporary Taiwanese and Hong Kong authors. Then in my high school and post-high school days, I was first immersed in Chinese classical literature like 紅樓夢, 水滸傳, 西遊記 and English classical literature and novels, and later on in job-related academic reference books and journals, apart from daily reading of The Hong Kong Economic Journal, South China Morning Post and other financial periodicals. Reading is a common hobby for most people from my generation. I could hardly be called an avid reader, but at least I (and my generation) have always shown respect for and keen interest in the written stuff, both Chinese and English. With the onset of the cyber age, online reading has become a newly acquired habit for some of us too.

One time I asked my nephew whether he had ever read any of those Chinese books mentioned above, or any extra-curricular Chinese or English novels, or any newspaper, or even any online essays? You can guess the answer. He spent his past summer and Christmas holidays in lounging around in his parents’ home in Hong Kong, playing cyber games, eating and shopping, not having touched a single page of a book. His teenage friends did pretty much the same thing. And book reading is certainly not a favorite hobby amongst many adults either. Although many do read newspapers, it is often the entertainment sections that interest them most.

Socrates once said: “The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance.” And knowledge is best gained through reading. Reading empowers and emancipates citizens and brings people together. The general aversion to reading (be it Chinese or English) among teenagers and adults alike nowadays is like an invisible corrosive that has been dissolving the cultural and intellectual foundation of Hong Kong’s society. If Hong Kong aims to develop her “cultural software”, promoting a well-read and intellectually charged citizenry may well be the first step.