New generation revives 'lost culture' of reading

New generation revives 'lost culture' of reading



Booksellers, like this woman at the Russian Market in Phnom Penh, are reporting growth in sales, particularly for Khmer fiction books, as literacy rates and standards of living continue to improve.

Behind closed doors,

Cambodia’s bookworms are hard at work. There may be few people reading on the

street and libraries may be hard to find, but analysts say reading is on the

rise as the once-popular Khmer pastime re-emerges from a turbulent era that

rendered books an unnecessary part of life.


After the Khmer Rouge lost

their grip on power in 1979, immediate efforts to rebuild Cambodia fell far

from reviving the book industry – something a new generation of readers hopes

to change.

“After the war, people only

thought about finding a way to survive. We didn’t think about knowledge,” said Hun Sarin, director of the Department of Books

and Reading under the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.

As literacy rates and

standards of living rise, more people are settling down with a good book and

rediscovering stories of the past, said Thonavet Poav, director of The

Federation for Development of the Book Sector in Cambodia, a non profit organization

made up of book sellers, authors, publishers, distributors, librarians and

representatives of government and non governmental organizations who wish to

alleviate problems affecting the development of books and reading in Cambodia.

“People aren’t aware of how good Khmer literature is and it is only

a matter of time before it is rediscovered,” said Poav.

Ros Sarou, deputy director of

the Department of Books and Reading who recently left her position as a

librarian at the National Library after 20 years of service, said the number of

students using the library rose during 2007. The library now gets “about 3000 visitors a month,” she said.

UN figures suggest there will

be more Cambodian readers in years to come, with UNESCO putting the Kingdom’s youth literacy rate at 83 percent in 2004, compared

with 74 percent for adults.

Theary Theng, financial

director of Phnom Penh retailer Monument Books, said a more open society means

Cambodians can learn about a broader variety of subjects.

“Before, many topics were

forbidden. Now, we can learn anything we want,” she said.

But getting books into

readers’ hands remains a challenge, with analysts indicating

that access to reading material and publishing practices need to improve.

“Even for those in the big cities

there are an insufficient number of libraries, most under-stocked with no

regular government initiative to promote reading,” Helen Jarvis, author of Publishing in Cambodia,

says in the 2006 revised edition of her book.

Writers, publishers and

printers are confronted by an industry still in its early stages of development

and, without the presence of official publishing houses, responsibility falls

on authors to produce their own books.

“One in three writers handle the

whole process of publishing and marketing their works themselves by

photocopying and selling their copies to friends at market stalls,” Jarvis wrote.

Unable to afford books in

Phnom Penh’s selection of upmarket

bookstores most readers take advantage of the over 150 roadside kiosks and the

concentration of bookstalls at the Psar O Russey, Olympic and Thmey markets.

Part-time bookseller Keo

Saravuth, 28, said business was improving at his mother’s bookstand at Psar O Russey market. In the ten years

since his mother set up shop, he has seen a sharp rise in book sales,

particularly of Khmer fiction books costing $1.50 to $3.

“We are starting to read more and

more,” said Saravuth. “Before there were not many books to read, now people

can find whatever they want.”

To help those in the

countryside also find what they want, the Department of Books and Reading plans

to start a mobile library that will travel nationwide in the next few years.

Help from abroad is on its

way, too. Last month, a delegation from the US-based International Freedom to

Publish Committee visited Cambodia on a fact-finding mission at the invitation

of the Center for Khmer Studies.

Committee chairman Hal

Fessenden told the Post there were many NGOs doing important work to

build a literary culture in Cambodia but his organization – made up of members of the Association of American

Publishers – could enhance their efforts by

identifying concrete steps to rebuild “a lost



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