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April 24, 2020

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Reading more into the figures

It’s that time of the year again, when statistics about our reading habits are handed out, like who read how many books in the previous year. These counts, often carried to two decimal places, do offer a glimpse into our changing modes of reading, but beg the more important question about the kind of books being read.

Marking the World Book Day (or World Book and Copyright Day) yesterday, the Chinese Academy of Press and Publication published an annual survey of Chinese people’s reading patterns on April 20. It discovered that an adult Chinese had read 4.65 books on average in 2019, just slightly less than the 4.67 in 2018.

Reading of electronic books also declined. Overall, fewer people were willing to read a paper book than in 2018. Even as more and more people preferred online reading, the survey found that adult Internet surfers were mostly attracted to fragmented pieces of information like news and entertainment, while staying away from immersive reading.

At the same time, people found themselves more and more inclined toward listening to audio books through various apps. In the adult world, said the survey, 30.3 percent of people listened to audio books. In the world of minors, the percentage was 34.7. In both cases, more readers chose audio books than a year before.

These seemingly objective figures do not necessarily tell us about the quality of our reading as individuals or as a nation. For example, was it better to read 4.67 instead of 4.65 books a year? What kind of audio books were people switching to, and why?

May we go beyond the annual numbers to figure out why one should read books at all?

The World Book Day in previous years hardly aroused my attention, but this year is different, at least to me and quite a few friends. Isolated, we have stayed at home most of the time, even on weekends and holidays, because of COVID-19.

Together, we have read more books and discussed more often. The more we read and communicate, sometimes sharing ideas across the Pacific Ocean, the harder we ask ourselves: What’s good about reading a book? Is it just about accumulating knowledge, or does it also concern our moral compass?

A humbling experience

Different people may have different answers, but there’s little disagreement with the belief that books help broaden our horizon by placing us in the historical context.

Books are brilliant, though they are not the only source of information about what happened and why it happened. In our quest for knowledge and wisdom, books help, though it also depends on whether a reader can profit the most from a book.

My limited reading experience tells me that reading is a humbling experience.

Of all the 64 diagrams in China’s ancient book “I Ching” (Book of Changes) only the one about humility bodes well in all steps and aspects.

All the other diagrams hint at mixed fortunes.

In his later years, Confucius devoted much of his time to studying and explaining the book, which has significantly enriched Confucian and Taoist thoughts.

Unfortunately, not all readers have learnt to be humble. In the current fight against COVID-19, for instance, there have been some people — some look quite knowledgeable — who would deliberately spread falsehoods and disinformation, or sow seeds of discord by accusing others.

This reminds me of what Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) said: “A man’s ignorance sometimes is not only useful, but beautiful — while his knowledge, so called, is oftentimes worse than useless, besides being ugly. Which is the best man to deal with — he who knows nothing about a subject, and, what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, or he who really knows something about it, but thinks that he knows all?”

Thoreau was not alone in alerting us of the danger of a smattering of knowledge. American judge Learned Hand (1872-1961) said the spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not sure it is always right; it heeds the slightest voice of a sparrow fallen on earth.

East or West, human ancestors have proved the benefit of being humble and benevolent.

It translates into a communal spirit of mutual respect, a spirit that should inform the World Book Day when it was first set up in 1995.

“Through reading and the celebration of World Book and Copyright Day, we can open ourselves to others despite distance. We can travel thanks to imagination … By creating a sense of community through the shared readings and the shared knowledge, readers around the world can connect and mutually help curb loneliness,” said a current article commemorating the day on the United Nations website.

It doesn’t matter how many books we have read. What counts more is whether we belong to the humble souls who have truly benefited from reading.


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