Singapore is not known as a reading nation, and indications are that it will continue to remain so if not enough is done to boost the reading habit among the young and old. The latest survey done by the National Library Board makes for sober reading. Borrowings from libraries fell by 15 per cent, from 38 million in 2012 to 32 million last year. These include books, magazines and multimedia material. The falling numbers are in line with the declining usage of library services among certain groups, especially adults, according to the organisation.
Should one conclude from these figures that reading is on the decline here? It could be that because it is now so easy to search for material online or buy e-books, fewer people see the need to visit libraries. However, surveys elsewhere show that physical books are holding their own against the easy availability of online content. A Pew Research Centre survey in the United States last year, for example, found that the proportion of Americans who had read a book in the last 12 months remained at 73 per cent, unchanged since 2012. The majority of them (65 per cent) had read a traditional print book - more than double the share who had read an e-book (28 per cent). These numbers show that it is not inevitable that book reading will decline in the digital world.
Indeed, the same survey suggests that a higher proportion of young Americans, aged between 18 and 29, read print books than their seniors, aged 65 and older. This ought to spur greater efforts to cultivate a love for reading among Singaporean youth. If bricks-and-mortar libraries, as these are now conceived, are not the best means to draw the young to books, other ways should be found to kindle a lifelong association with all sorts of books. It could become a quest for understanding equivalent to scaling Everest: progressing from browsing data to finding information, and going higher from learning knowledge to gaining wisdom in one field or another. Many others might just read for the sheer pleasure it provides.
There is advantage in having a society that loves to read, more so in Singapore, which aspires to develop in its people an appreciation of deep skills and knowledge that are relevant in today's highly competitive and globalised economy. Going beyond the purely functional, reading good books can broaden intellectual and emotional vistas, and help connect individuals to wider humanity.
This is a habit best cultivated young. The problem is that many Singapore students find their budding interest in reading crushed by the demands of an exam-oriented schooling system. Poring over school textbooks to gain higher scores might put the young off books of lower utility value. The winners, however, will be those who have an insatiable curiosity and read widely to open their minds to a world of ideas.