By Dennis Abrams
Writing for phnompenphost.com, Emily Wight notes that while Cambodia has a literacy rate of more than 77.6%, reading is restricted to the classroom. But there is hope that that will soon change, with the help of last weekend’s third annual Cambodia Book Fair.
Organized by Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture, the National Library and the Cambodia Librarians and Documentalists Association, the aim of the fair, which feature displays from 15 different publishing firms as well as talks from key figures in Cambodian literature, was to “persuade the public of the pleasures of reading, as well as promoting Cambodian authors and publishers.”
Culture Minister Phoeung Sakona told the Global Times that the book publishing sector has rapidly developed in the last five years, adding that currently, there are 561 book writers and publishers.
“The fair is a very important event for students to look for books they like and for writers to meet and exchange their experiences,” she said. “On this occasion, I’d like to appeal to students to spend more time reading books in order to improve their knowledge.”
But ironically, as Wight notes, the president of the Cambodian Librarians and Documentalists Association, Hok Sothik, wasn’t always interested in reading either. It wasn’t until he was 21 and studying at Russia’s University of Piyatigorsk that he learned to appreciate great literature.
“Before going to Russia,” he said, I’d never have any books in the house. At the university there, the professor asked me to read a lot of books, all in Russian, which was very stressful, but I had to continue. By the time I was back in Cambodia, I loved reading.”
The article points out that most Cambodian children, like Sothik, grow up in homes without books, and with parents who have fallen out of the habit of reading as well.
Why is this?
One reason, says Sothik, who is also director of the literacy NGO Sipar, is that historically, Cambodian storytelling has been traditionally been oral as opposed to written, but in addition the Khmer Rouge, “enemies of knowledge and academia, eradicated whatever and whoever they associated with literature.”
He told Wight, “Before the Khmer Rouge regime, people read more, a lot of older people wrote books and local libraries were open. But the culture of reading was destroyed during the Khmer Rouge, and also the materials. Books were used to make cigarettes. Teachers, authors, and books were all destroyed, as was so much of an entire generation. The loss of a generation is a problem for the transition for families and society.”
(And of course, today, as in the rest of the world, books and reading have to compete with TV, radio, and the Internet as entertainment.)
So what does Sothik think can be done to change his nation’s thinking about reading? Mobile libraries, he says, would be a good place to start.
“I think that we have to follow the people. If books can’t attract them to come, we have to send the books to them: where people work, where people learn. That’s why Sipar has different mobile libraries reaching people in villages; we’re also working in prisons and hospitals so that everyone can enjoy reading.”