On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Spellbound by books

I love the smell of print. Call me old-fashioned if you must. Call me biased because I am in the newspaper business. Call me whatever you want, but reading is one of the simple pleasures in life that is still worth everything.

I READ at least four books at any one time and they are found in various spots of my house – from the bedroom to the living room to the most private room of all.

There are also books, magazines and newspapers in my car and in my office so I can catch up on my reading whenever I can.

I love the smell of print. Call me old-fashioned if you must. Call me biased because I am in the newspaper business. Call me whatever you want, but reading is one of the simple pleasures in life that is still worth every­thing. In the morning, all I need is a copy of the newspaper, two half-boiled eggs and a cup of Milo with condensed milk at a real kopitiam.

Despite the hype on e-books, I am sticking to well-thumbed pages instead of the touch screen. And I still love the crammed bookshelves in my private library, even if I have to struggle to look for a dust-covered book.

Those who have been to my house can see bookshelves at every floor and I am still adding books to my library. But compared to many other book lovers, I still have a long way to go.

The late Tan Sri Dr Tan Chee Khoon, whose life’s passion, other than being Mr Opposition, was reading, had an extensive collection of books on military history in his well-stocked library.

Former Kedah Mentri Besar Tan Sri Sanusi Junid, also another passionate reader, has a library with more than 20,000 books and I was given a tour of it when I interviewed him.

And our Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak is an avid reader as well. Those who have been in the private section of his official residence will be suitably impressed by his extensive collection.

Those who argue that they can have more books on a PC than all these libraries combined do not know what they are talking about.

Horror writer Stephen King, in a recent video interview, said he could not imagine himself reading an e-book in his toilet. He said that if it accidentally fell into the toilet bowl, the device would be spoiled for sure. If it was a printed book, he would just fish it out, dry it under the sun and soon it would be as good as new.

He didn’t add that reading a real book, with the feel of the paper on the fingers, is like feeling an object of love. You appreciate the labour of love that goes into the writing. It just cannot be compared to flipping the pages on a tablet, even if the books are written by the greatest of writers.

Philosopher Alain de Botton, in an interview in the UK’s The Sunday Times, said “I am a recent apostate from e-books. I found that whatever I read on my Kindle, I couldn’t really remember in the long term. It was as if I had never read it.”

Well, here are the numbers: Amazon reportedly launched the UK store for its Kindle e-book reader three years ago and a frenzy of e-book buying followed. In 2011, sales grew by 366%, and the number doubled again last year when 65 million e-books were sold in the UK alone, making up 17% of the total book sales market.

The Fifty Shades of Grey erotic trilogy by E.L. James contributed much to the huge sales, filling the top three slots in last year’s e-book sales charts, the newspaper said.

But this year, growth is slowing, according to the newspaper, with sales expected to grow at around 20% only. The newspaper, however, did not give the figures for the sales of the printed versions.

But to put it in context, a report in The Telegraph in May, quoting the British Publishers Association, revealed that spending across printed and digital formats rose 4% to hit £3.3bil in 2012.

And printed books still accounted for the vast majority of sales, sliding by just 1% to £2.9bil. The share of the e-book market, although up by 134%, stood at only £216mil.

I am not sure about the situation in Malaysia although we are often reminded that reading is not a popular Malaysian pastime. A popular reference point has been on how, in 1995, Malaysians only read two books a year, though the statistics for 2010 showed that the number has increased to between eight and 10. Still, we have not done studies on reading trends that factor in e-books.

But if we look at the local bestsellers’ list published by the major bookstores, we can see that the ones that make the list are usually on management and autobiographies of rich businessmen!

Malaysians seem to prefer such dull reading materials to enrich themselves instead of heading to the fiction section to fire up their imagination. Well, at least something is being read.

Ironically, newspapers that thrive on sex scandals, ghost stories and other ridiculous gossip passed off as news seem to sell better these days, particularly in the vernacular press.

The thinking section of the newspaper, (like its Op-Ed section) that includes serious commentary on both the local and foreign fronts, normally do not have advertisements. The advertising fraternity is probably aware that readers are flipping past these pages, preferring to go straight to the news pages as well as the lifestyle, entertainment and sports sections. That’s popular culture and the real world, I guess.