Foley’s Forecastle

Peter J. Foley


August 2011

Why Thais Don’t Read Books

By Peter J. Foley

UNESCO’s  selection of Bangkok to be the Book Capital of the World for 2013 begs the question: why?

The Bangkok Post published an article on February 2, 2011 citing the reading rate surveys of the Publishers and Booksellers Association of Thailand (PUBAT).  The 2010 survey showed that Thais on average read just five books a year as compared with Malaysians who read on average 40 books a year, Singaporeans 45 books a year, and Japan 50 books a year.  The previous survey conducted in 2005 suggested Thais read only two books on average every year.  So , with it obvious that Thais are not a nation of readers , why would UNESCO choose Bangkok to be a Book Capital of the World?

Many educators feel the general education level of the average Thai is even more dire than statistics  like these and recent dismal test scores for school age children indicate.   Abundant, anecdotal evidence suggests that in the rural areas the rate of reading is less than a book a year for most Thais.     There is no doubt that Thailand will lose its economic footing unless the poor state of public education is turned around in order to create a highly  educated work force.  The master key to such a turn- around is to create Thailand as a nation of readers, critical readers,  life- long learners.

There are many Thais and farangs who throw up their hands and say it is an impossible task to get Thais to be a nation of readers since it is not in the Thai tradition.  This is balderdash.  As the eminent historian David K. Wyatt points out, Thailand has a rich bibliophilic tradition.  Wyatt relates that in some parts of Thailand in the 1890’s the male literacy rates were “considerably in excess of the literacy rates in Europe or America at the time.”  In Thailand’s history there were huge numbers of Buddhist temples that included library buildings.  These buildings housed Buddhist religious books, or in the case before printing, texts incised into palm leaves.  Males were taught to read and write in monasteries.

The point here is that Thailand enjoyed a rich intellectual tradition.  This tradition included a ready access to libraries by the male population.

It is no wonder , then, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration(BMA) lobbied hard to win UNESCO’s approval to designated Bangkok Book Capital of the World for 2013.  The BMA want to use the UNESCO award as a platform to  change Thailand from a nation of non book readers to a nation of book readers.  Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra will be leading this effort , concentrating on encouraging  reading among working-age residents. The deputy governor, Taya Teepsuwan, has already initiated a reading campaign encouraging passengers using the mass transit system to read while riding the buses and trains.

We should  begin this campaign  by asking why Thai’s don’t read books in this modern era. This is a question worthy of considerable research before moving forward.

There is much to be done if such a reading revolution is to take place among Thais, much to be done to recapture the intellectual tradition for a wider population in Thailand.  Presently, the tradition is largely restricted to the 18% of Thais who finish college.

Reading is something that becomes part of a nation’s culture.  It is a culture taught to children and encouraged as they grow up to the point that a person becomes a life- long reader, and , thus, a life- long learner.   I hope the decision makers who are charged with organizing a successful reading campaign will consider:

1.  Campaigns to turn off the T.V. and computer and, then  read to small children and tell them stories.  Story telling was a cherished tradition in Thailand only 40 years ago.  It should be revived and coupled with reading stories as well as telling them;

2.  Making great books written in Thai available at very cheap rates or free to borrow on a massive scale in the rural areas of Thailand through mobile libraries or through community access to high speed internet with free e-book down loads;

3.  Special incentives for software game manufactures to distribute and sell games that teach reading skill and practical knowledge with tax disincentives for those selling mindless computer games;

4.  Intense focus in schools throughout the Kingdom of Thailand to promote reading , including, the hiring of specially trained reading teachers from elementary school through to Matiyom

5.  These reading teachers would in turn be empowered to train classroom teachers to create independent learning libraries  in each classroom.   At the very least there should be every effort made to hook up class rooms with high speed internet in order to access first class Thai reading material for every age group.

6. To accomplish these and many other goals, there is a need for solid research on what the actual situation is in terms of reading and reading materials .   For example, there is a dearth of information on lists of great books written in Thai which are available on an age appropriate level.   More research need to be conducted on what can change Thai attitudes toward reading books and what Thais would like to read.

Why don’t Thais read?   If Thais have access and they are encouraged from an early age, Thais will read.   A new Thai intellectual era will dawn.  Thailand will successfully  meet the challenges of the 21stcentury.