Why students are turning their attention away from the printed page and what can be done to bring books back.
It’s a relaxed afternoon at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and, despite a light drizzle falling from above, Meas Chansatya is sitting on a bench outside of Hun Sen Library with a pleasant smile spread across her round face. She is engrossed in a book titled Half the Sky, which is about women’s struggles all over the world. While it’s an idyllic university scene, the fact that Meas Chansatya is reading for pleasure, rather than for one of her classes, makes her fairly unique amongst her peers.
Say Sochamroeun, a volunteer for Open Book, a non-profit organisation located near the Royal Palace open to the public for free reading, said that most university students read only what is assigned to them or, if they do choose to read for pleasure, generally choose fluffy fiction that doesn’t contribute to a better understanding of the world.
“Sometimes people don’t get what they expect to gain from reading, so they become disenchanted,” he said, adding that the quality of Khmer books today suffers from the lack of skill and knowledge of modern Khmer writers. While the quality of books might contribute to the Kingdom’s lack of readers, past and present trends in society also discourage reading.
“Cambodian people do not read enough,” said Hem Borith, a 44-year-old Khmer Literature teacher at Sisowath High School in Phnom Penh. “People read before the Khmer Rouge, but we adapted a bad habit of not reading because our parents went through the civil war and didn’t read because they were trying to survive. Now their children follow that routine.”
“My parents never read anything to me when I was little,” said Meas Chansatya, 19, in his first year studying Accounting at the National University of Management, adding that she has never read any books besides her school books.
Another factor in the dearth of book-worms in Cambodia is modern media such as radio, television and the Internet. “People prefer watching TV or listening to the radio over reading because it is much more convenient, faster and more up-to-date,” said You Sophea, a writer and a Khmer literature professor at Kampong Cham Teacher Training Center and Cambodia University for Specialties.
It has been suggested that Cambodians do not read much because books are unavailable or limited in their subject matter; however, You Sophea rejected this notion. “Books are available both in Khmer and foreign languages almost everywhere compared with the past. People just do not like reading.” While reading may not be popular today, young people who aspire for highly-skilled and well-paid jobs will likely be left behind if they avoid books.
Kaing Mengsong, a marketing researcher for GS, a Korean construction company in Cambodia, said that reading is vitally important. “When you enter the employment world, you will learn that what you study at school is not enough,” he said. “You need to read more to enhance your knowledge because it can help you be successful in your working life.”
To promote reading, You Sophea recommended that parents teach their children to read when they are little and that schools focus more on reading. “Parents should instill good reading habits by reading to their kids when they are young,” said You Sophea, adding that writers should write more meaningful books to assure that readers gain valuable knowledge.
While it is true that TV, the radio and the internet are more modern sources for information, books allow you to engage with amazing people, go on adventures and learn about the world’s history in a way that nothing else can. There are thousands of different titles to choose from at book shops and libraries around the country you just have to find one that interests you, set aside some time and immerse yourself in the world of words.