A new chapter in reading
Elisabeth Bumiller
Tue, May 27, 2008
The Straits Times

AD! That's what Singaporeans should do more of. And that's what this year's reading campaign sets out to do. Launching it last Wednesday, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, the Community Development, Youth and Sports Minister, noted that 54,000 people have taken part in 700 book discussions and other reading activities since the initiative began in 2005. The figures hint at mass audience promise, even lucrative marketing potential - book deals, top-10 bestsellers, corporate sponsors. Such prospects would excite the publishing trade. But to focus too much on commercial considerations is to risk missing the narrative emerging from proliferating excursions beyond the utilitarian in reading choice. Guides to career advancement, self-improvement, financial investment and child-rearing continue to dominate non-fiction bestseller lists. Along with ubiquitous cookbooks, they offer seemingly irresistible practical value. But wider and deeper interests have also arisen in recent years. Among this month's top sellers are titles that delve into philosophy, religion and literature. In fiction, taste has also broadened eclectically, again reflected among current bestsellers.

This year's READ! theme - Home And Away - seeks to widen the field even further. At the same time, it allows for sentimental and psychic interplay between being Singaporean and the globalised experience and existence that come with travel and residence abroad (or, indeed, with just living in the globalised and cosmopolitan environment at home). It is, in short, an attempt through the monochrome typography of books to explore the colourful emotional topography within and beyond the boundaries of mere physical geography. Admittedly, it is a challenging exercise in abstraction. So it is just as well that the campaign leader, the National Library Board, is pushing to partner pragmatically with the hotel, food and beverage and airline industries to target service staff. Reading and book discussions would surely help these workers expand their horizons. But let's hope the aim is not primarily to train them to serve customers better, for that would merely mean re-trudging old utilitarian terrain.

Instead, they should come to love books as an end in itself - for the non-materialistic pleasures they offer. If reading has benefits beyond the individual, these again are infinitely more valuable as part of a free, open-ended, and edifying conversation a community ought to have with itself than as a contribution merely to economic advantage. Books can become 'meccas of the mind to wandering souls', as one writer put it. The more people read, the stronger the community bond and the richer the national fabric.

"This is great to keep overseas Singaporeans connected to home news and affairs"

"My favourite was "The Aftermath for Malaysia Election" - (in my opinion), this was a very well crafted world standard image, it is even suitable for a Time magazine cover!"
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