Reading Maketh a Full Man

Yang Tu Yang Ni

Once upon a time there was a storyteller who spun tales to raptured gatherings by the river bank in Old Town. He would light a joss stick before he starts and when that burns out the chapter ends – usually at the most exciting point leaving you on tenterhooks. Before he continues he will pass the tin round to the audience. That’s how he makes his living.

I heard of this when I was a child and would have loved to be in the audience.

In the fifties and sixties there was Rediffusion (cable radio) which broadcasts every once a week a Cantonese programme – “Tai Soh Kong Ku” – of storytelling. It had a great following. His audience would set aside that time for him irrespective of what they were doing.

Traditions of storytelling exist in cultures – in the longhouses of Borneo, the town square of Marrakesh, in Bedouin tents. But today there is no space for them anymore. They have been drowned out by the noise, engulfed by new technology.

Today storytellers tell their narratives in printed pages and increasingly also electronically. The medium has changed but the art remains. But for how long?

It’s a fact that most writers struggle to make a decent living, publishing companies face hard times and bookshops find it hard to survive.

Ask anyone to name the last book they read and most would be stumped. This seems to be a generational thing. The young do not seem to have cultivated the reading habit of their elders. Probably they are not encouraged to read in school or at home.

Besides reading as a school text (to pass exams) how many students read for pleasure instead of turning on the TV or surfing the net.

Reading fiction lets you use your imagination, it teaches you to express yourself beyond the prosaic and technical. Over time reading (in general) is the difference between someone who is informed, interesting and articulate and someone who is limited in imagination, can barely carry out an interesting conversation and is plain boring.

But try telling this to the non-readers. Most have surrendered their imagination to the TV.

The State Library is almost always empty. The Tun Razak Library is full of kids doing their school work, taking advantage of the air conditioning or in some cases (as I have observed) having a little cuddle under the stairs. I wonder how many borrow books to take home or use the references?

There was a Book Fair recently in Menglembu. I went with great reservation, it’s probably a small affair I told myself. “They are probably selling old books and titles which are not in demand”. How wrong I was. It was a big fair and there were hundreds of titles covering every subject. The titles were current too. The most pleasant surprise was that it was very well attended. I saw people leaving with bundles of books.

There is hope yet! But in reality this probably represents only a fraction of Ipoh’s population.

But seriously though, there’s lots to do to get people (especially our young) reading again. I wonder if schools have a “library period” where students are taken to the library where they must pick out a couple of books to read for the week. We used to have it when I was in school. And in some schools children are made to take a book home to read and have it recorded in their reading card. Poor readers are tested on what they have read.

Some wit quipped that the computer has reduced the average person’s attention span to 8 seconds. Surely not! But even so I think the average attention span is not as long as I remember it to be. In the age of ‘instant’ everything people can’t hold their attention very long.  This has given rise to a new (relatively) genre of stories called “Flash Fiction” where the stories can be as short as one paragraph and usually no longer than 700 words. But even with flash fiction – in fact more so I would think – you need imagination to fill in the big empty spaces.

Pak Peter (Peter Bucher – “Swiss by birth, Perakian by choice”) and Charmalee Sivapragasam (a professional writer) have started a reading group called the ‘Sharpened Word’ to encourage local writers and get more people interested in books. Schools should encourage their students to attend such activities which are free. Then there are reading circles organised by various people, e.g., Audrey Poh.

I am sure both would be glad to hear from readers: Audrey – email:, Pak Peter –

A Chinese proverb says, “Those who do not read are no better than those who cannot.” Another, loosely translated, says that a person’s conversation is flavourless who does not read.

Or as Francis Bacon said “Reading maketh a full man.”


(The Man from TR)

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