Read a good book lately?

It's hard to get down to reading a novel with distractions around, but it's my loss I don't read more

I kicked off 2016 with an ambitious resolution. I will read 50 works of fiction this year, I announced to H.

I was inspired by a story in The Straits Times Life section about how a Singaporean had read 40 books in 2015.

Nicole Kang, a teacher, had made reading more books her 2015 resolution. To achieve this, she diligently read for 15 minutes every night before going to bed and she also read while travelling on the MRT.

 

If she can do it, so can I, I thought.

Fifty books means one book a week. Surely I can find the time to do that? I am a fast reader.

I was in a reading mood when I made the resolution.

While on holiday in December, I had finished two books - a translation of Frog by the Nobel-winning Chinese novelist Mo Yan and The Year Of The Runaways, a shortlisted Man Booker Prize work by British author Sunjeev Sahota.

I'd loved both books and their characters had stayed in my head for a long time.

It had been ages since I'd read proper books and I was feeling satisfied, inspired and invigorated. I couldn't wait to dive into more. Fifty books, here I come!


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

H brought me back down to earth.

Ha, ha, he snorted. 50?

Ten will be more like it, he said.

Probably five.

He knows me best, of course.

He calls me the Google Queen.

My default position in bed (and anywhere around the house) is not book in hand gently turning the page, but iPad or iPhone in fist, thumb furiously scrolling up and down as I Google.

He knows I have the attention span of a gnat because one minute, I could be reading about - and aloud to him - the latest news on Donald Trump and the next, it would be some tidbit from The Daily Mail website or a place I'd discovered on the Tripadvisor app.

There have been very few times in our six years of marriage when he'd seen me sitting quiet and still, head buried in a book.

In 2015, I probably read all of four works of fiction. And he's right, because we're now into the end of March and I have so far finished zero books.

To be fair (to myself), I am trying.

I am into chapter three of British author Hanif Kureishi's The Last Word. I have also started on Mo Yan's Red Sorghum although at page 9, I have 350 pages to go.

And if we include non-fiction books, I have actually completed three whole chapters of Malcolm Gladwell's David And Goliath.

My intentions are also good.

Besides the abovementioned, my bedside table is stacked with these books which I've bought since the start of the year:

• Shifu, You'll Do Anything For A Laugh and Big Breasts & Wide Hips, both by Mo Yan (I fancy myself in a Mo Yan phase).

• How To Live: A Life Of Montaigne In One Question and Twenty Attempts At An Answer by Sarah Bakewell (I like what little I know about Montaigne and I love the title of this book).

• A Brief History Of Seven Killings by Marlon James (it won the Man Booker prize so it must be good).

• The Mark Of The Assassin and The Kill Artist by Daniel Silva (an author - I can't remember who - said in a tweet that she was reading Silva so I thought I should check him out).

• Fifty Shades Of Grey by E. L. James (yup, Fifty Shades - I want to know what the hype is about; I haven't got down to peeling off its cling-wrap though).

Littered around the house are many books I've bought and turning yellow without me having read one page.

There's Vintage Munro, a collection of short stories by Canadian Alice Munro which I probably read before but want to revisit.

There's Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip by Peter Hessler, which I was attracted to because a review on its cover said it "bubbles with freewheeling pleasures".

Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis, about Bombay in the 1970s, is also lying around somewhere, as is The Yips by Nicola Barker, a British writer I'd not heard about but thought I'd give her works a chance.

So many novels - all unread.

I'm not the only one who isn't reading much fiction. A recent survey of about 1,000 people in Singapore found that 56 per cent have not read a "literary" book between March 2014 and March 2015. Half of those who hadn't read a book cited lack of time and the other half said lack of interest

The National Arts Council survey found that women were slightly more likely to have read a book than men. People aged 30 and younger also read more fiction than older folk.

The Internet was found to be a factor distracting people from reading books - two in five said they preferred the Internet and social media to reading books.

I fall into this category, although I wouldn't say that technology is the sole reason I'm no longer reading novels.

I grew up with books and my parents were avid readers. My father would quote Tennyson and was a fan of authors from Leslie Charteris, who wrote the Simon Templar The Saint books, to Han Suyin and Dostoyevsky.

His bedside table overflowed with books, many with annotations in the margins.

Even though his business didn't always do well, he had no qualms spending money on books for us, including a 54-volume set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica's Great Books of the Western World which must have cost quite a bit.

Unfortunately, no one other than him read any of those books because they were gilt-edged and looked too intimidating. I still have all 54 books.

One of my best memories of him was how, over a period of a few months, he would present my sister with a new storybook every night.

We had a relative who was working at a book distributorship and my father got books from him at a discount.

After dinner, he'd fish out a book from a secret box and hand it to my sister. After she was done with it, I got to read it. That was one of the most pleasurable experiences of my childhood.

My mother, too, devoured books, in her case those sent to her by her father in Japan or which she got from the library at the Japanese Association.

I read a lot all through school to university and the early years of working life. I went through phases - Thomas Hardy, John Updike, Anita Brookner, Saki, David Lodge, Raymond Chandler, John le Carre, Ruth Rendell, Michael Cunningham.

I contributed book reviews to this newspaper and even tried my hand at fiction writing.

Then, almost overnight, I lost my appetite for fiction. Magazines and newspapers were an easier read and their material more relevant to my work.

Television was more relaxing. Time passes easily when you're watching CSI, Law & Order and reality shows and the best part is you don't have to think.

Then came smartphones and tablets which allowed one to get information anywhere and anytime.

I became Google Queen and a snacker of information, easily distracted by whatever new thought entered my head.

Who had the time or the patience to dive into a novel?

In the last 10, 15 years, there have been only two authors whom I really liked and read a lot of.

One is Ha Jin, the pen name of China-born Jin Xuefei who is based in America. He writes in English about ordinary people, a soldier in communist China or a fresh-off- the-boat Chinese in America.

The other is Albanian author Ismail Kadare. His books are spare, yet also complex, dark and heavy with allegories of Albanian and Balkan history and politics. I don't understand their deeper meanings, but I find his stories fascinating.

Beyond the works of these two authors, I haven't read that many other novels in recent years, which is my loss, really.

Studies have found that reading fiction has many benefits. It increases your ability to empathise because the part of your brain that you use to understand stories overlaps with the bits that you use when you interact with people.

Reading has also been shown to reduce stress because it puts your brain into a pleasurable, meditative state . One study found that within six minutes of silent reading, heart rates slow and muscle tension eases by up to 68 per cent.

Regular readers have been found to sleep better, have higher self-esteem and lower rates of depression than non-readers. Regular readers of fiction also experience less mental decline when they are older. Reading also improves your vocabulary and creativity.

There is, of course, also the bragging rights that come with reading. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell said: "There are two motives for reading a book; one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it."

But I know H is right. Chances that I'll read 50 books this year are slim. But at least I'm making a start and if I hit even just 10, I will be happy.

•Follow Sumiko Tan on Twitter @STsumikotan

Correction note: An earlier version of the column had a wrong spelling for Jeet Thayil's book Narcopolis. We are sorry for the error. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 27, 2016, with the headline 'Read a good book lately?'. Print Edition | Subscribe