by Trung Hieu - Toan Trang
Viet Nam officially celebrates Book Day on April 21, but many believe this is a small step to rouse people's interest in books and cannot immediately alter their reading habits.
Historian Le Van Lan stated at a recent conference on the reading culture in Viet Nam that it is necessary to save people's reading and thinking culture.
"According to statistics, each Vietnamese reads 0.8 books on an average each year," he said.
Professor Chu Hao, the director of Tri Thuc (Knowledge) Publishing House, noted that these figures related to our reading culture are alarming.
"The passion for reading among different social classes, from leaders, parents to students is not evident anymore. We now have a lot of publishers and mass media agencies, but the content for people to read is yet appropriate. Many topics are not worthy to be honoured, but there are too many books about them. Moreover there are few interesting books," claimed Hao.
The professor remarked that Viet Nam's education system since 1975 till date has not encouraged students to read books and is mostly based on "cramming" knowledge, so students barely have time to read their textbooks in order to pass their exams.
"Our students do not have enough time and passion to cultivate other knowledge," Hao said.
He elaborated that in advanced countries, students are encouraged to read books since childhood. Especially during high school, teachers give reading assignments to students, wherein they have to read classic books written by the great authors of the world and their own country. The students do not necessarily read the entire book, they can read a section, and then write descriptions and exchange them among groups.
"In our country, the previous generations were not guided to read books. As they did not inculcate the habit of reading, so their children and grandchildren too did not have it either. The reading culture in our country is at stake and needs to be promptly addressed before it is too late," Hao said.
"Our education system has many shortcomings, but if we do not uphold the reading culture, it can have far-reaching consequences. France and Russia, for instance, have a strong reading culture and a sound education system, but their reading habits 20 years ago were much better than what it is now. The reason is that audio-visual media has overwhelmed paper books. Audio-visual media is useful when we are only seeking information. But to study and enjoy, people have now recognised the great value of paper books."
In an unexpected quick move, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung approved April 21 to be commemorated as Viet Nam Book Day annually.
Prior to this date, the publishing industry had regularly organised book festivals and book fairs to encourage more people buy books. There were several student volunteers who attended the book fairs and listened to the writers' speeches following their schools' appeal.
"Currently, a majority of readers buy books after reading an introduction about them on the media. In fact, people consider books as a kind of entertainment rather than a form of learning. Only when people consider books as an indispensable source to enhance their knowledge, the Viet Nam Book Day would really hold value," said poet Pham Sy Sau, assistant director of Tre (Youth) Publishing House.
"Nowadays, we urge everyone to buy and read books, but this is still like a movement. People remember the books they were introduced to rather than finding the actual reason why their content is really valuable," he added.
Journalist Phan Quang, former president of the Viet Nam Journalists Association, stressed that we have not harnessed the power of the media to promote books.
"We can see that the introduction section for books on media is mostly for literary books," he remarked.
Most Vietnamese readers like books for entertainment purpose only, rather than reading books for additional knowledge and skills because it is hard to read these books, which force them to think more, Director of Alpha Books Nguyen Canh Binh pointed out.
"We must inculcate the habit of reading knowledge-based and tool-specific books for Vietnamese, especially the young generation," he emphasised.
Professor Hao noted: "It seems that novels are being introduced a lot more, while we ignore scientific books, tool-specific books, research books, books on culture, the great authors of the world and classic literature, all of which should be popularised."
In addition to several companies specializing in literature books, many reputable publishers now pursue books that provide knowledge, and they have gained a foothold in the market.
Though they still face many difficulties, the book line Tinh hoa (Quintessence) of the Tri Thuc (Knowledge) Publishing House and the book line Canh cua mo rong (Open doors) of the Tre (Youth) Publishing House are increasingly attracting readers, though they do not cater to readers at a universal level.
"Books are an asset, wherein the more you share, the more affluent you become" is the guiding maxim of a youth group in HCM City, who are now implementing a project named Book Box, where book boxes are placed in public places such as coffee shops and sidewalks. They are appealing, both in appearance and their inner meaning.
The first book box can be found at the Air Lounge cafe on Ton Dat Tien Street, District 7, HCM City.
Translator Phuong Huyen, one of the organisers, emphasised that this initiative aims to start a community reading campaign, which can conveniently promote the habit of reading and sharing books to anyone on the streets.
"There will be many book boxes located in several places, depending on the volume of books that we collect. You can get books to read freely and carry books away, with just a little note: with each book you remove, please fill the vacancy with another book of your own preferences," she stated.
Loan Vo, a book lover, has lauded this model, on its page www.facebook.com/bookboxvn
"It will help us learn how to share and give what we have. Initially, you may put into the box those books that you don't like or don't need, but I believe that gradually, we will know how to share, and the more valuable books will start appearing more frequently as after reading an interesting book, we always want others to read it too," she added. — VNS