Hok Sothik is president of the Cambodia Librarians and Documentalists Association, but astonishingly, he wasn’t always interested in reading. It was only when he was 21 and began studying at the University of Piyatigorsk in Russia that he acquired a taste for literature.
He said: “Before going to Russia, 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.”
While the most recent figures show the country’s literacy rate at more than 77.6 per cent, Sothik, who is also the director at the literacy NGO Sipar, believes that for the majority of Cambodians, reading is restricted to the classroom. Like Sothik in his youth, most children don’t have books in their homes, and many adults have fallen out of the habit of reading longer texts for the very same reason.
It was with this in mind that the Cambodia Book Fair was launched three years ago, and enjoys a third run this weekend at the National Library. Organised by the Ministry of Culture, the National Library and the Cambodia Librarians and Documentalists Association, it aims to persuade the public of the pleasures of reading, as well as promoting Cambodian authors and publishers.
The fair will feature stalls from 15 different publishing firms and talks from key figures in Cambodian literature such as Oum Sophany, Khiev Kosal and the Nou Hach Literary Journal.
Why the reluctance to read? Cambodia’s culture of storytelling has always been an oral tradition, according to Sothik, and the Khmer Rouge, enemies of knowledge and academia, eradicated whatever and whoever they associated with literature.
He said: “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 of habit for families and society.”
He added that on top of this, books now have to compete with TV, radio and the internet for entertainment.
With Cambodians having little interest in reading, Sothik acknowledges the challenge of rallying people to the book fair. He said it had been difficult to attract people the past two years, though he admits this was partly due to poor marketing. He said: “I don’t think we had enough time to spread information through the media: through TV and also social media such as Facebook. But also, people aren’t very interested in books. Maybe if the fair was about consumer products, then they’d be more interested to come. But it’s not yet in the mentality of Cambodian people to have books in the house.”
So how can this mentality change? Mobile libraries, Sothik suggests: “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.”