Culture Vulture

Seduce the non-reader

Place books in the right places, get people in the right mood, and they might just fall in love with reading

I have a friend who is single, attractive, outgoing and looking for love.

He is insightful and sensitive, witty and warm. He is accomplished in his profession and cares deeply for loved ones, willing to go the distance to bring them happiness.

Yes, he is human and not without flaws. He readily admits that his passion for things can sometimes burn too bright and consume him, but let's be honest, unless it is an addiction to vice, which it is not, that is hardly a deal-breaker.

He has looked for love online and offline, signing up for dating sites and apps, as well as attending interest groups to meet like- minded people.

That his efforts have yielded no meaningful results is disappointing, but not surprising.

In a culture of dating where much of everything hinges on first impressions - an irreversible swipe to the left or right on a mobile phone, a meet cute in real life - the wholeness of people and the intangible qualities they possess that only time can tell stand little chance in influencing the way compatibility between two people is measured.

And if one fails at first impressions, how do you get the person who has written you off to give you a second chance?

My friend's dilemma reminded me of the challenge that arts and culture face in Singapore in winning over the uninitiated. How do you woo someone who has no interest in what you have to offer, even though it is life-enriching?

This thought weighs on my mind particularly as the two-month-long national reading campaign reaches its half-way point. The campaign, launched by the National Library earlier this month, aims to encourage more people to read and discover the joy of doing so.

The push comes amid a downward spiral in the number of library visitors and loans as well as tepid interest in literary books.

The latest cultural statistics show a significant decline in the number of people visiting public libraries, 1.5 million fewer in 2014, compared with 2013, and a corresponding drop of 1.4 million book loans in the same period.

Growth was seen in the number of people logging on to National Library Board websites with an increase of 400,000 online visitors from 2013 to 2014, but they could have been accessing databases and scholarly articles rather than literary books.

The results of the first literary reading and writing survey released in March by the National Arts Council similarly paint a sombre picture of reading habits in Singapore.

More than half, or 56 per cent of the 1,015 Singaporeans and permanent residents surveyed, had not read a literary book between March 2014 and March last year. Among the top reasons they gave for not reading a book was that they were not interested.

To nurture a love for reading, the National Reading Movement is going on a charm offensive. It is, for example, bringing books directly to the public, including on MRT trains and offices, to appeal to time- starved working adults.

A new initiative will see the National Library partner corporations to curate reading material tailored to the companies' areas of interest. A library-themed MRT train will also be launched later this year, allowing commuters to scan QR codes to download recommended e-books.

These moves to increase public access to books may make it easier for people to pick up a book and read. But I wonder if convenience is the antidote to disinterest or an effective way to get people to kick the habit of not reading.

Would a commuter who is used to scrolling through his social media feed, or watching videos, or playing games on his mobile phone during a train journey break away from his habit and download an e-book to read because there is a QR code on the train beckoning him to do so?

Behavioural studies say that a habit begins to break when the cue for it is disrupted. Perhaps a library-themed train will be disorienting enough to jolt a commuter out of his routine. But if not, we could perhaps take a leaf out of dating books and apply the art of seduction and persuasion to help people fall in love with reading.

A common advice for those seeking love is to build an emotional connection. This might seem like a tall order when the other party is an inanimate book, but if the mood is right, sparks could fly.

A potential setting is a cosy cafe, which is ubiquitous in Singapore and popular among professionals on weekends. There, one who is in the mood for an aromatic cuppa might find themselves in an unhurried state of mind and emotionally open to having their experience of pleasure elevated. An entertaining read that presents itself right under a cafegoer's nose in that moment could well ride the positive vibes and draw the person into its pages.

Some cafes, in fact, provide reading material for guests to peruse while dining in, although these tend to be glossy magazines. If books from the libraries found their way into these and other coffee shops, perhaps they might whet the curiosity of non-readers and spark an interest in reading, which cafegoers can take away with them by loaning the books.

And who knows, this might well conjure a meet cute in real life - two persons connecting over a book in a cafe. Perhaps this is what needs to happen for my single friend who loves words and coffee. Time for me to gift him a book he likes that will also be his soulmate bait.

Correction note: An earlier version of this article said the two-month long national reading campaign was the National Reading Movement. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 28, 2016, with the headline 'Seduce the non-reader'. Print Edition | Subscribe