For years, it has been argued that the printed word is a dying medium.
It’s 2020. Physical books aren’t dead yet. But we are certainly giving a good go at killing it.
Everywhere we go, we see people plastered on their phones, if not watching a video, then reading. In the past 15 years, we have seen the Kindle, the mobile phone, then the tablet serve shock after system shock to the print media industry.
These days, some busy Singaporeans don’t even look at their phones any more, being plugged into their podcasts and audiobooks.
With so many things vying for our attention, reading a paperback seems almost like a quaintly archaic past-time these days.
Luckily, we are still able to experience the magic of storybooks in other forms, such as a series of storytelling events held by the National Library Board as part of the 398.2 Storytelling Festival. The next one is happening later this afternoon.
Despite this, I’ve always preferred reading physical books. Nothing will ever beat the excitement of flipping a page in anticipation of what surprise lies in store for me next.
Last weekend, I decided to take a trip down memory lane and revisit old storybooks that I regularly read in the past. Digging through the city of books in the boxes tucked away in my storeroom triggered an avalanche of fond memories.
I couldn’t help but smile as I recalled how I would reserve a spot for every storybook I was reading at the very front of every school bag I had. It would stand out from my textbooks and worksheets to allow me to easily whip it out whenever I had even a spare minute to read.
My smile faded slightly when I was also reminded of why opportunities for me to read were not always readily available.
A reading journey through childhood
Despite buying me many books, my parents used to limit my reading time at home. While they had good intentions, they never made them clear to me.
“Stop reading and do your maths homework”, they would say to me without any further explanation.
In retrospect, they probably felt that their reasoning was self-explanatory as apart from English, my grades at the time were in dire need of improvement. They wanted me to buck up on my other subjects instead of working on my already-stable English grades.
However, my perception of it back then was very different.
It always baffled me that my parents were willing to buy me books every time I went to the bookstore yet whenever they saw me crack open one of those paperbacks, they’d ask me to do something else “more productive”.
It was even more confusing because adults elsewhere were encouraging me to cultivate the habit of reading.
This ranged from the daily silent-reading time before morning assembly (which I thoroughly enjoyed, unlike many of my peers!), to reading practice during English lessons. Teachers in school were quick to cite the benefits of reading and how we should always do it in our spare time.
This confusing state of affairs resulted in my primary school self avoiding my storybooks when I was at home. Instead, I would read before and after (and sometimes during, to the exasperation of my teachers) lessons in school.
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More than just passing the time
I didn’t realise it consciously at the time, but books were giving me much more than just better language skills.
When the challenges of the real world became too much, storybooks were my saving grace. They transported me momentarily into a whole new world filled with endless possibilities, with a compelling narrative to boot. It gave my mind a much-needed break from the problems I faced in various stages of my youth.
On top of that, the stories stretched my imagination, allowing me a glimpse into the minds of the authors. I became more creative, my imagination soared and (my teachers would be happy to know) my vocabulary expanded.
I also started writing stories as a hobby without being told to do so. This happened in a time where I rarely did anything out of my own volition.
All of this blossomed into something even bigger and, in my opinion, even more important. I found my love and passion for writing and listening to the stories of other people. That desire for storytelling has brought me to where I am today.
So this is my story about my storybooks. And I know I’m not alone. And this passion for books isn’t just for the introverts and the bookworms.
For some other parents, they may indirectly cause their children to lose interest in reading. This is mainly due to parents putting too much control on what books their children are allowed to read.
Consider Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford, a football player of all people, who recently started a book club for needy children.
He said that reading completely changed his outlook on life and wants to make books more accessible. He added that the escapism that books offer could have been beneficial to him if only he had more opportunities to read.
Even though his chosen profession has little to do with writing or reading, Rashford recognises how much good books can do and wants to expose more children to reading.
This shows how much all-rounded benefits books can bring to a person regardless of their talents and goals (of which Rashford has had plenty. Full disclosure: I am a fan of the Red Devils.).
Non-readers tend to be quick to dismiss reading as “just another hobby” because the benefits are not tangible ones. It doesn’t seem as productive as other hobbies like cooking or exercise, which have more obvious returns.
But I urge all of us to look at the bigger picture. Just because the benefits aren’t immediately evident, doesn’t make it any less meaningful.
Perfect family bonding opportunity
Now that the holidays have started, get your kids to start reading. Instead of giving them an iPad or Phone and leaving them to their own devices (pun fully intended), encourage them to pick up a storybook instead. And read with them, or next to them. Let them get used to quietly sitting next to you, comfortably lost in another universe.
It will also help them to find enjoyment in reading as a hobby. From that, they will be encouraged to read leisurely of their own accord more often.
This also allows you to participate as well and bond with your kids. You can ask them about what happened in the book, and use that to teach them life lessons.
If you need to limit reading time for them to improve on other subjects, let them know why you are doing so. Make it clear to them that you are not against reading and that they can go back to it after finishing their revision.
Apart from that, you can also spark their fascination in stories by telling some of your own. This can be anecdotes from your past, or you can create your own story based on their interests.
Storybooks are wonderful things. They can bring us joy, help develop our minds or allow us to find out more about the world.
Let’s get our children to revel in the great things that can come from reading. It’s not important whether these books are paperbacks or in digital print – it is about the stories that they contain and the tales they tell.
Stories have lasted from time immemorial. They were passed down in oral histories by our ancestors; they were scribed on to clay tablets by our forefathers, they were written on papyrus first by the Egyptians and they were printed on paper when the presses started.
Nowadays, words are written with ones-and-zeroes lurking behind the screens of our tablets and Kindles. But that is just the medium that may or may not survive the years to come.
Books may come and go, but the stories they contain? Now these will never die.