Plans to launch a National Reading Day on July 30 should aim to capture the public imagination strongly enough for reading to become a daily habit over time. That might appear a long shot, given the present state of Singaporeans' reading habits - only 44 per cent had read at least one literary book in the past year. But it's an effort that must be encouraged, not just for the educational benefits.
Reading helps people develop a greater sense of empathy and become more socially adept, according to North American studies. For example, John Steinbeck's The Grapes Of Wrath got across the misery of migrant workers to the public, leading to congressional hearings and the enactment of labour laws to help dirt-poor Americans.
Video snippets that go viral have their own potency, but nothing can match what Philip Roth calls the "ruthless intimacy" of a book in exploring different worlds and yielding sublime insights.
Drawing different groups of readers - the young, working adults and senior citizens - to books will call for more than just campaigns, of course. Recognising this, the National Library Board (NLB) will adopt some novel approaches, like using a library-themed MRT train to nudge commuters into scanning QR codes to download e-books with short offerings that can be read on their phones or tablets during the journey. Curated content will be brought to offices and reading interest will be stoked at senior activity centres.
Importantly, NLB will double the number of mother tongue language reading clubs by this year. These can expose the young to their cultural heritage in more effective ways than the obligatory texts studied in classes.
To better connect with students, NLB should consider even unconventional ideas and leverage popular culture to attract youngsters to the pleasures of extended reading. In the 1950s and 60s, Cantonese master storyteller Lee Dai Soh kept radio listeners agog. That art ought to be revived in contemporary styles to introduce a range of genres to different audiences.
Oddly, even seniors are among those who rarely use the library. Less than a quarter of those aged 60 and above drop in at public libraries. An islandwide survey on reading habits this year might well offer clues to help entrench the reading habit widely. One way might be to promote more content by Singaporean authors, like those who are drawing the attention of even international publishers. Apart from writers Ovidia Yu and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, lesser-known authors are also making their mark, with one signing a two-book deal with publishing giant HarperCollins. Indeed, Singaporean texts are even being studied in various schools abroad. It wouldn't do the authors proud to have others wax lyrical about works which Singaporeans might not get around to reading - especially not at the rate of one book a year.