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Poor reading habits bode ill for VN's future

Update: August, 15/2008 - 00:00

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(16-08-2008)

Poor reading habits bode ill for VN’s future

Last week: We asked our readers what they thought about Vietnamese people’s reading habits. These are some of their opinions:

Thomas Yoshida, American, HCM City

The statistics that were provided were probably correct: the average person reads 0.6 books per year and 80 per cent of the books published are textbooks. I would have liked to have seen a demographic survey of book readers according to age, gender, education, occupation and residence in order to get a better insight into the issue. I believe that in urban areas, reading of newspapers and magazines is popular. Are there any statistics on newspaper readership in urban versus rural areas?

The statistics are bad news for Vietnamese publishers, but I believe they are reflected in many western and developing nations and certainly in third world nations. Viet Nam is an agrarian nation with the great majority of the population spending their lifetimes farming. Little emphasis is put on formal education and reading. The majority of the older generation, who were born in the 1930s to 1940s, fall into this category, with the exception of the urban mandarin/nobility, professionals, educators and entrepreneurs. The people who were born in the 1960s and early 1970s, when the country was at war, probably didn’t have much schooling or time to read. During these periods from the 1930s through to the mid-1970s, women didn’t receive much education as it wasn’t deemed necessary for them (an Asian cultural practice during this period). If the above is reasonably correct, then reading of books for enjoyment was not an everyday activity.

Next week: Debates on child adoption have attracted the attention of Vietnamese and foreigners. Everyone is upset at claims that, in the last two years, hundreds of children under the age of five have been falsely put up for overseas adoption in Nam Dinh Province.
Some people say there should be more thought about whether children can have a brighter future abroad. A few describe the scheme as child trafficking.
What do you think? How should foreign child adoption be managed to avoid negative consequences while still ensuring the best conditions for the children?
We welcome your opinions. Please e-mail: opinion.vietnamnews@gmail.com
or fax: 84 4 9332311. Letters can also be writen to The Editor, Viet Nam News, 11 Tran Hung Dao Street, Ha Noi. Please reply by Thursday morning, August 21.

How can we increase the reading of books for enjoyment/recreation/social awareness? I believe that the solution falls into two major categories: adults and students. It appears that a large section of the adult population does not read books and that television has become the main source of entertainment. My belief is that the majority of the adult population are newspaper readers and hence the use of newspapers is a potential marketing approach to encourage adult reading. If copyright issues can be worked out, excerpts from books could be published. Or better yet, condensed versions of popular books/potential best sellers could be published in serial form weekly or even daily so that it becomes habit forming and people can read for enjoyment/interest. There should be a list of best-selling/popular books published in weekly newspapers similar to the New York Times Best Seller List. A Vietnamese version of author Mr Huu Ngoc’s Wandering Through Vietnamese Culture would be an excellent choice for consideration for this marketing method. It could be divided into different areas (history, stories, travel, culture, literature, personalities, etc.) and published separately in several volumes, keeping the cost of the work affordable. I believe that this will work, as I was introduced to Mr Huu Ngoc’s Traditional Miscellany column in the weekly Sunday edition of the Viet Nam News.

Students rarely read for enjoyment. I know many students who have never read a book for pleasure. Students are overloaded with academic work. Television also competes for student’s time. Computer games, chat rooms, internet surfing, etc. is another distraction. Reading for enjoyment can be encouraged by parents reading to their children at an early age. This requires an abundance of children’s books. I wonder how successful the translation of the Harry Potter books were in Viet Nam?

Vietnamese writers should be encouraged to write about their experiences and thoughts. There should be writing contests sponsored by newspapers and publishing companies. Furthermore, Viet Kieu should be encouraged to write about their experiences abroad and their recollections of Viet Nam. I hope that reading for enjoyment becomes more popular in Viet Nam and I am looking forward to reading English translations of enjoyable Vietnamese books.

Nguyen Thi Mai Chi, Vietnamese, Ha Noi

I think it is true that nowadays more and more people, especially young people, get information through the internet instead of books or newspapers. In my opinion, there are two main reasons for this: reading books is time consuming while accessing information on the Net is fast, interesting and easy. In my opinion, it will be difficult to promote greater reading of books and newspapers among young people. I don’t think it is a problem. People should discover the joys of reading for themselves.

Tim Russell, British, HCM City

The main reason so few Vietnamese people read books is that the country’s education system does not encourage creativity; nor does it foster respect and admiration for writers. Ask any group of Vietnamese students what they want to be when they finish studying and they will nearly all say "businessman/woman." I have never heard anyone express a desire to be a writer or an artist. Bill Gates is an idol; George Orwell, Dostoevsky and Albert Camus (to pick three names at random) are virtual unknowns. I know who I would rather have dinner with.

Vietnamese book shops don’t do much to encourage the reading habit either. Noisy, chaotic and disorganised, with row upon row of unattractively designed books arranged with no apparent logic or order. Even those stores that have begun importing English books have no idea what their customers actually want.

There’s also the fact that reading is a solitary pleasure, and solitude is not easy to find in Viet Nam. I love going to restaurants alone and reading as I eat, but doing this in a local restaurant attracts bemused stares from fellow diners and constant hassle from the waiting staff who seem to think that lone diners are looking for company and conversation. As the Vietnamese tend to live with several family members and devote their leisure time to group activities, when can they get the chance to read a book? Not very often!

In short, I have learned more from reading books, both fiction and non-fiction, than I ever learned at school, and I agree with Horace Mann who said "No man has a right to bring up his children without surrounding them with books." I am already encouraging my 15-month old daughter to get the book habit. Sadly I don’t see too many Vietnamese parents doing the same.

Roy Little, American, HCM City

For the moment, let’s assume the figures given by the Ministry of Information and Communication regarding reading habits have some basis in reality (I believe that 0.6 books per year is on the high side). I would also question the highly publicised 99 per cent literacy rate in Viet Nam. Lack of reading is not unique to Viet Nam. The internet, computer games and other multimedia compete for people’s time. The young also consider books "old fashioned". However, I am confident that books will survive because of their intellectual, social and entertainment value.

The over-emphasis on textbooks in Viet Nam may be the result of two underlying issues: (1) The belief that education can only occur through the reading of textbooks, which are usually very limited in scope and perspective (students will attest to the dull content); and (2), the serious lack of reading material in Viet Nam.

There is a wealth of information and ideas available via the internet which attracts those who are curious about the world and all it has to offer, and thus its appeal. Young people and adults may surf the Net for topics which not only interest them but are unavailable elsewhere: this provides the needed motivation to read – interest and relevance. Vietnamese students who have developed English reading skills have a whole new world at their finger tips as much of the latest information, technology and scientific breakthroughs is written in English.

English books at various reading levels are becoming much more common in local bookstores, and once exposed to the delights of reading classic literature from various cultures, students often become avid readers. Encouraging people to read widely and surrounding them with quality books which they can freely view and select will go a long way to improving readership. Those who are surrounded by books at home during childhood often become avid readers and better students. Allowing people to choose books based on their own interests and making it convenient to find books – in addition to scheduling time to read daily – will result in a better informed, educated and civilised society.

Cao Thu Hang, Vietnamese, Ha Noi

The survey about reading habits in Viet Nam has shown that the number of books being read in a year is very low. I think we are facing a very serious problem and if we don’t act now, in the next 10 years books will only be available in schools. We can’t force people to do things that they don’t like. What we can do is encourage the reading habit. There is a lack of public libraries where people can sit and read books. Many youth now spend most of their free time chatting on the internet or playing computer games, watching porn, hanging out with friends or sitting all day long in coffee shops. We can’t blame them for their lack of interest in reading.

Books are also too expensive. It is rare that a school child can find a story that amuses them. We need to build more public libraries so people can borrow books – maybe one to two in every district. — VNS

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