Our fourth in a series from Pressian on the Korean publishing industry.
As much as parents worry about their children’s grades, they also worry about their reading habits. More than a few will have felt their tempers flare on seeing their once book-loving child absorbed in a smartphone game.
This month’s World of Books Beyond The Cover will let you in on a secret to befriending books. A small hint: Parents have a critical impact on their children’s reading habits. But before we get into this, let’s first learn about how close Korean people are to books. To do this, we will examine the results of the annual National Reading Survey, which is conducted and published by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. The results of the 2017 survey came out a little while ago.
The results were as expected. As time goes by, we are moving further and further away from books. Most Korean adults don’t even read a book a month. And people are spending less and less time reading in their free time.
The most serious problem, however, is that people now read with a clear purpose. Only a few people actually read for the joy of reading. This is probably because people haven’t formed a habit of reading in their childhood.
We’ve now looked at the results of the National Reading Survey and why it is important for people to form a habit of reading when they are young. And as always, we met with Jang Eun-su, CEO of Edit Culture Laboratory, and Lee Hong, Executive Editing Director at Hanbit Biz, at the Printing Culture Research Center in Mapo-gu, Seoul, on February 13, 2018, a few days before the lunar new year.
90 percent of Korean students read books, but only 60 percent of Korean adults?
When we include people who read e-books, the percentage of adult readers in 2017 rises to 62.3% and of students to 93.2%. Considering that the Korean e-book market is still small, this doesn’t seem to mean much. Why don’t we talk about these numbers first?
Jang Eun-su: I expected as much, but it’s still shocking. That means 40 percent of Koreans don’t even read one book in a year.
The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism released the data on reading from Japan and the United States as well. It doesn’t look like there’s much difference between these countries and Korea at a glance, but actually there is a huge difference.
(According to research conducted by the Pew Research Center in the United States, the percentage of adults who say that they have read at least one book (print or digital) fell from 76% in 2014 to 73% in 2016. According to the Mainichi Shimbun’s survey on readership in Japan, the percentage of readers who read at least one book a month fell from 49%in 2015 to 45% in 2017.—Pressian)
On the Korean survey, we ask, “How many books did you read last year?”. In Japan, the survey asks, “What books did you read last year?” This means that the real percentage of Korean readers may be much lower.
And considering the characteristics of the statistics, the trend is more important than the numbers. Over the past decade, the percentage of reading Korean adults has been steadily decreasing. In 2007, the percentage of Korean readers who have read at least one book in a year was 76.7, meaning that number fell by 16.8 percentage points over the course of 10 years. This is something that people in the publishing world need to take to heart.
Unlike adults, there are many more students who read books, and I wonder if that is significant. If they are being forced to read through school programs such as “Reading in the Morning” or to prepare for essay exams, it doesn’t seem very meaningful.
Lee Hong: You’re right. Percentage isn’t very important for students in this survey. Reading is important when you’re a student because it helps form a reading habit and values. Therefore voluntary reading, satisfaction, and enjoyment are important. If reading to get into college was what makes a huge percentage of students read, ultimately it only turns them off from reading. The side effects are already terrible. Although the results of this year’s survey don’t mention it, if we asked why students stopped reading after they graduated from high school or once they entered college, we’d be able to see the naked truth.
Jang: Because reading is a factor in student transcripts, reading tends to be forced on students. And schools make students write book reports on what they have read. I understand that otherwise schools can’t tell if students have actually read the books, but that makes students who have a difficult time reading hate it. And a repetition of this process results in students thinking of reading as something hard and difficult.
And so while 90 percent of students report that they have read at least one book, the number falls to 50 once they become adults, as this year’s survey results show us. And it also proves why students read so many books compared to adults. You can tell that they are not reading voluntarily.
(According to the results of the National Reading Survey, Korean adults read an average of 8.3 books a year, while Korean students read an average of 28.6. A detailed examination of the results for students show that elementary school students read 67.1 books a year; middle school students, 18.5 books; and high school students, 8.8 books. All of the statistics on students hereafter do not include textbooks, workbooks, and comic books—Pressian).
When you look at the United Kingdom, Sweden, or other European countries that are known to have advanced reading cultures, book reading doesn’t vary hugely with age. In fact, some countries even show people reading more as they grow older. Korea’s policy on reading is rotten from the roots.
How many people truly enjoy reading?
Lee: You might think that this is out of the blue, but an important part of this survey is the “Purpose of Reading”. Both adults and students have answered that the most important reason they read books is “to gain new knowledge and information”. At a glance, this might seem normal, but actually it shows us the sad reality.
(According to the National Reading Survey, the primary reason adults read books is “to gain new knowledge and information (23.7%), followed by “for refinement and general knowledge” (19.8%), and “for consolation and peace of mind” (15.2%). The reasons students read books are: “to gain new knowledge and information” (28.8%), “because reading is fun (16.7%), and “for refinement and general knowledge” (14.1%)—Pressian)
For both adults and students, the most important purpose of reading is “to gain new knowledge and information”. It’s not bad, but it’s not desirable. Why is reading important for children who just started learning to read or whose bodies and spirits are growing? “To gain new knowledge and information” is strictly from an adult’s perspective. What’s important at their age is not knowledge and information but the existence of ‘fantasy’. There are various ways to acquire pre-made knowledge. But there is nothing better than reading to make children think, imagine, and create their dream worlds.
But parents these days don’t like their children reading fiction. You can see this from the growing non-fiction market for children’s books. Only the importance of functional reading to help children adapt quickly to learning is growing. Turn this around and what do you get? “If you’re not gaining new information, then there is no need to read.” This trend appears in Korean infants and toddlers’ books as well.
Let’s go back to the number of books children read per year. Elementary school students in Korea read 67 books a year. What does this vast amount or, more extremely, this crazy amount of books say about reading?
Jang: When you look at why Korean adults read books, not only the top reason but also the second reason “for refinement and general knowledge” is also reading for a purpose. For students, the number one motivation for them to read is “to do homework or to write book reports”. This clearly shows that reading in Korea is forced and directed by someone else.
(The National Reading Survey’s section on “Motivation for Reading” shows that adults read books “because I wanted to” (36.7%) and “for self-development” (18.7%). Students answered “to do homework or write book reports” (28.1%) and “because I wanted to” (25.6%). Although the top reason people were motivated to read was because they wanted to, considering that the purpose of their reading was “to gain new knowledge and information” and “for refinement and general knowledge”, there is room to suspect that the reason people wanted to read was not necessarily the joy of reading.— Pressian)
This kind of forced reading culture ultimately creates children who don’t read except for homework. Korean children see reading as part of the school curriculum.
Jang: That’s right. Korean parents actually half-force their children to read nonfiction. And schools aren’t different. They think it might help the students study. But that’s wrong.
Students have to read literature first. They can naturally build their language skills while reading fun stories, and that is the best way to develop the power of understanding the world.
You can see that not only children but also adults don’t really read fiction. A few days ago, my wife went to a book club meeting, and the leader of the club said, “Let’s not read fiction”. Because you have to learn something from participating in a book club, but you can’t do much of that from reading fiction. This is the typical image of someone who is focused on reading for a purpose. You can’t expect many people to read in this kind of environment.
Lee: On the other hand, when you look at the results of the National Reading Survey, the type of books that Koreans prefer the most are literature and genre fiction. This means that Korean readers prefer fun and interesting stories but are strongly pressured to gain knowledge from books. There is a discrepancy between the kind of reading that Korean society demands and the kind of reading individuals prefer. This is an example that proves that simply changing the reading environment won’t make more people read.
(According to the National Reading Survey’s “Preferred Books” section, adults prefer literary fiction (23.7%), genre fiction (13.0%), books on hobbies, entertainment, travel, and health (10.9%), and books on philosophy, thought, and religion (10.3%). Middle school and high school students prefer genre fiction (30.3%), literary fiction (17.3%), and books on entertainment, sports, hobbies, travel (9.9%), while elementary school students prefer fiction (19.7%), biographies (12.2%), books on hobbies (10.6%), and history books (10.4%). In consideration of the answers in the “Purpose of Reading” section, it is possible to deduce that there is a discrepancy between what Korean people ‘want to read’ and what they ‘think they need to read’.— Pressian)
In the age of social media, is there a place for books?
Jang: Not necessarily. We have to look at the adults separately from the students. When you look at the bestseller lists in Korean bookstores, the books near the top are always fiction. This means that avid readers read relatively more fiction. (Actually, people tend to read both fiction and nonfiction evenly.––Pressian)
But those who read occasionally tend to read for a purpose. Since they’re going to do it once, they think that they want to read something that’ll be helpful for them in their lives, and so they tend to select a self-help book or a book on economy or business instead of fiction. Naturally, they don’t prefer novels.
Jang: They understand the importance of reading but are saying that they “don’t have time to read”. That’s a typical escapist answer.
(According to the National Reading Survey, Korean adults said they don’t read because they: “work or study and therefore do not have time to read” (32.2%), “spend time instead on mobile phones, internet, and games” (19.6%), “spend time instead on other leisure activities” (15.7%). Students answered they don’t read because they: “work or study and therefore do not have time to read (29.1%), “don’t want to read and do not have a habit of reading (21.1%), “spend time instead on mobile phones, internet, and games (18.5%).— Pressian)
People who are busy still have time to watch TV or go to the movies. They’re looking to do other activities instead of reading. In the end, they think that they need to read, but a very small number of people think that they are responsible for their lack of reading.
It’s because they don’t have a habit of reading voluntarily. This is the reason that workplaces create a culture of forced reading for adults as well. Of course, the reading list that workplaces want is filled with practical books that people can use at work. This kind of reading culture would never help you realize the joy of reading.
Lee: I do understand to a certain extent that people “don’t have time to read”. There are more things that can replace books than in the past.
Now, books aren’t competing with other books but with other cultural media and leisure media. And the latter have become more elaborate and faster. Ironically, the more culture and technology develop, the more time we have to spend to enjoy them. Smartphones are processing data more and more rapidly, but if we want to enjoy that content on smartphones, we have to spend a longer period of time. It’s because there’s more information created in the same amount of time, and there is an endless outpouring of information that has been optimized for the technology you’re using.
Naturally, interest in books is decreasing in this environment. This sense of crisis isn’t just felt by the publishers but shared by most in the old traditional cultural field and the press.
Jang: That’s a fair point. It’s a time when people can say, “We can get whatever knowledge and information we need from video lectures, so why should we read?”
But according to the results that Professor Jang Dayk from Seoul National University presented at the National Assembly last year, the human brain does not evolve in a way that is suitable for reading. Because reading is an activity that came about relatively recently. The reason people read, even though reading is not a necessary activity in terms of the evolutionary theory is that there are advantages to reading. Humans can transfer their own experience to other generations by recording what they’ve experienced, and this kind of collective work is what drove the birth of civilization, its accumulation, and prosperity. Reading is the cultural engine that makes learning about society possible.
Another advantage to reading is the strengthening of creativity. If creativity can be explained as seeing something that is not given, thinking differently about something that already exists, and making something old into something new, creativity is generally spurred by slow thinking.
Our brains cannot process slow thinking immediately. You need a lot of energy to use your prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of processing slow thinking. But it’s difficult unless you’ve gotten used to it through training, so we don’t think about using it.
But reading helps train you to think slowly. Acquiring information slowly through slow reading and internalizing it. This is similar to slow thinking. Information that you’ve acquired quickly through YouTube videos can never be internalized.
So why do we need to read?: The Thinker
Jang: That is why we are now entering the age of “deluding ourselves into thinking that what is not a thought is a thought”. We’re only instantly reacting to someone else’s thought, but people come to think that it’s their own thought.
You need context to think. First, you have to accept the information and arrange it in relation to other information that you’ve accumulated. In this process, thinking occurs. If you don’t go through this “rearrangement of information” process, your own thoughts cannot be formed. Only when you structure your thoughts are application and creation possible.
YouTube and other video media are fundamentally response media. They make viewers watch something on the screen and react immediately. Most social media is the same. Now people feel anxious when they’re not on Facebook or Instagram. These response media make the “essence evaporate”, as Nicholas Carr said in his book The Shallows.
People think that thoughts come to them out of nowhere, but that’s not true. Our thoughts are structurally similar to books. Through training for a long time, we go through introduction-body-conclusion, or introduction-development-climax-conclusion and think quickly. “The unconscious is structured like a language”, as Lacan had said. Here, I think language refers to the language of books. I want to said that “The unconscious is structured like the language of books”.
You train yourself to think structurally in the process of distinguishing between the title and the body of writing, images and text. Untrained thinking, meaning thinking that hasn’t been trained with texts can’t become a thought. It’s simply a stream of consciousness and hormonal reaction. Watching someone eat something on YouTube all day long is simply a process of taking in, rather than structuring the flow of information.
When people whose thoughts have not been properly structured go on Facebook or YouTube, they are unable to structure the information given to them. They’re easily swayed by ‘fake news’ on Facebook or YouTube. The recent controversy over the Kim Il-sung masks is a typical example.
Of course, it is reasonable that people are predicting a depressing future for text. Marshall McLuhan told people early on to step out of their identity as text people and praise the television. Television is the symbol of a new civilization in which people use all five senses to process information. But this is actually the characteristic of the medieval civilization. It is impossible to process the amount of knowledge and information we have today through oral communication
Our civilization should not give up on structuring thoughts. Radically speaking, giving up on this would result in the “collapse of civilization”.
The only way to make children form a habit of reading
Summing up everything that we’ve talked about previously, it seems that making a habit of reading at a young age would have a big impact on one’s own reading habits and the reading culture of society at large as well. What can we do to make children befriend books more?
Jang: People often say that when you make a habit of reading when you’re young, you keep on reading after you get older. It’s true.
Many Korean parents want their children to read books. So they want children to learn the Korean alphabet quickly. Once you know how to read, you can read books. But knowing how to read does not have a big impact on reading habits. There’s no correlation.
There is one most effective way to make a habit of reading that humans have learned. Parents reading to their children. There is no other definite way whose effectiveness has been proven to form a habit of reading for children. Guess why ‘bedtime story’ has become a genre in North America and Europe.
The more often parents read books to their children, the more the children grow to like books. The experience of reading with parents is the absolutely most important thing that makes children like to read. Unless that happens regularly when children are young, I don’t think it’s of much use for older children to read regularly in the morning. But many parents don’t do what they should do at home and look for the answers in society.
Of course, any parent would know, but it’s very difficult to read to children regularly. Parents are often tired after work, and children always bring the same book to read dozens of times.But children learn about the world throughs stories. They learn to imagine things, and they come to love books though the experience of reading together. I’m going to emphasize this once more—except for a tiny minority, there is no other effective way to get children into reading than to read together.
Reading habits are, ultimately, a human experience. Using a book as a medium, children can bond with their parents and naturally grow to like books. When you have the experience of a mother or father’s warm embrace, kind voice, and interesting story, you enjoy reading all throughout your life. Reading together at a young age can evolve into going to bookstores together or to book events or museums as children grow older. This kind of book experience between children and their parents is important.
Jang: That’s why reading experience is important.
When you look around, it gets more and more difficult to find people who interact with others using books as a medium. In other words, the more you talk to other people about books, the more you read. I mean, now there are book clubs where you have to pay to talk about your reading experience (☞related article: You pay your own money to read your own book and write a book report?). Your experiences of using books as a medium creates a reading habit for both children and adults.
What’s the easiest way to provide adults with a reading experience? Increasing facilities. But the policy to encourage reading in Korea mainly focuses on increasing the number of libraries. That’s the reason there are a lot of book cafes today.
But creating facilities does not make reading habits. As I said earlier, the kind of experience you have using books as a medium is important. That is why book clubs are considered important in these discussions.
Lee: And we can’t simply shift all the blame on the readers. Publishers have to meet them halfway.
Books shouldn’t try to compete with the electronic media and the internet media. Now, when there is an explosive number of information transmitters, books need to focus on their true role. There is a tendency these days among publishers to focus on making easy books rather than on the true role of books. A major example is the media seller craze. In the past, TV and films copied books, but now books copy these media. This is not the role of books. In the short term, these kind of books might help publishers’ business, but gradually the uniqueness of books vanish. This kind of trend turns books into a medium that you can throw away after reading once.
Books, in the end, have to be the root of information and imagination. They must let children dream and bring adults cutting-edge information.
Jang: As I said earlier, the morning reading program has become homework that children have to do because it goes on their report cards. Children who said that this program is helpful are the ones who already like to read. Other children who are not used to reading books might be suffering in this program.
(According to the National Reading Survey, the implementation rate of the morning reading program in Korean schools is 81.7% for elementary schools, 52.9% for middle schools, and 3.5% for high schools. The percentage of students who answered that this program helps them to form a habit of reading has been steadily increasing from 49.5% in 2011, 51% in 2013, 57.6% in 2015, to 61.1% in 2017.—Pressian)
Jang: Of course, it’s not not helpful. But if a considerable number of children have formed a habit of reading in elementary school, the percentage of habitual readers who read two or three times a week shouldn’t decrease as they grow older.
But look. Among elementary school students, 75.7% have answered that they are habitual readers. That number decreases to 23.9% in middle school, and only 12.5% in high school. In advanced countries, the percentage of habitual readers doesn’t drop like this. It’s better to have the morning reading program than not, but it doesn’t actually help children form a habit of reading. Instead of making all children read uniformly, it’s necessary to approach children by grouping them into children who like books, children who read sometimes, and children who don’t read. And if we were to do this, it’s essential to have teachers—reading teachers or teacher librarians—who are in charge of this.
Lee: It’s not the morning or the evening that is important. The fact that we are hoping to help children form a habit of reading by consistently being around books is important. School and teachers particularly have a huge influence when the students are younger. If they can make use of the program as intended, more children will find pleasure in reading with close friends under the guidance of their teachers.
Of course, this has to be premised by the fact that they’re not being forced to read but are doing it voluntarily with other friends. The importance of physical education is also growing weaker due to college entrance exam-centered education, but gym classes have a similar effect on students as the morning reading program. We need to reflect on these points if our education is not to simply focus on producing machines that score well on exams.
What kind of reading support policy is necessary for the multicultural society of Korea?
Ultimately, the important thing in reading for adolescents is “how can we provide a fun reading experience for children who are not used to reading?” I’m not sure if I see an answer to that.
Jang: Of course, it’s not possible for children to come to like books naturally in other countries as well. This might sound weird in this context, but boys tend to like things other than books (laughs).
In the United States and United Kingdom, one of the programs that encourages boys to read is reading with their heroes. For instance, libraries have programs where children in soccer clubs can come and read about soccer with their coaches. Sometimes police officers and firefighters, who could be children’s heroes, come to schools to talk about their work and tell children about the books they like to read. I think it would be great to have these programs for students of all ages to participate. We have similar programs in Korea, and sometimes teachers visit public libraries with students too. I hope there are more programs where schools and local communities can cooperate to provide children a reading experience.
Also, reading is important for children with poor literacy skills. For instance, say that a fifth grader has literacy skills at the third grade level. This child will hate reading something at the fifth grade level, because it’s difficult.
We can provide special textbooks for such children, books that explain what fifth graders should learn but using vocabulary at the third grade level. Northern European countries do this. It’s impossible to mass produce these books, so the government provides funding. In those countries, there are reading programs for slow learners.
There is one other thing that we have to talk about. Diversity in our society is increasing due to the increasing number of North Korean defectors and multicultural families. These families have one thing in common—the parents are not used to Korean. Naturally, their children have poor vocabulary and literacy skills. It is difficult for such children to compete on a level playing field with children who grew up under Korean parents. In Sweden, libraries and schools have a set of books in their own language and other languages, like Korean or Vietnamese, they loan to students. That’s one thing that we can learn from them.
North Korean defectors use the same language as South Koreans, but the words that we use in South Korea are very different from what they use in North Korea. Because of cultural differences, there are a lot of terms that we use in South Korea that North Koreans do not use.
So in light of this, it would be important for Hanawon, the Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees, to consider providing training in reading to help North Koreans settle in South Korea. Simply showing South Korean films and TV shows does not help them with their vocabulary issues. When we encourage North Korean intellectuals to read South Korean literature and South Korean books, they learn to think in the South Korean language.
Another important thing to think about is the issue of educational rights for people with disabilities. We need to provide books that are suitable for their learning speed. If there’s someone who is physically an adult but thinks at the fifth grade level, we have to explain their physical changes at the fifth grade level.
I think our society is too insensitive to these problems. Reading programs in Korea are only centered on people who like to read.
Jang: We need a fundamental change in the direction of the reading culture policy. The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism is simply continuing what it’s been doing in the past. It hasn’t shown us anything different about this new administration that was built on the “power of the candles”.
Above all, we need to break away from this view of enlightenment, obsessively emphasizing the importance of reading. Spectacles, like events and campaigns can’t create a reading culture. This year is apparently the Year of Books, but no one around me knew about it. There will be a “declaration ceremony for the year of books” in the coming month, followed by the World Book Day, Seoul International Book Fair, National Reading Competition, National Library Competition, Bookstore Day, and other events, but aside from the one-off declaration ceremony, everything else has been done before. Mostly, the private sector is in charge, and the government only provides funding.
But as we’ve seen so far, the reading culture in Korea hasn’t disappeared because of the lack of events. The policy should be focused on small but powerful practice that can help people form a habit of reading in their daily lives through book clubs and the like.
Lee: Reading shouldn’t be seen as a learning method where information and knowledge are forced on people. There has been great developments in technology and the tools we need in our lives have become advanced, yet we are living in a society with an increased burden to learn something. So even though we know that it is necessary to read books, we become scared and want to avoid reading.
Reading may be great, but people weren’t born to read. We have to broaden children’s idea of reading rather than making reading a duty and value. You can easily see Europeans sitting on a park bench or on the beach, reading. They’re not doing that because of their thirst for knowledge and information. Most are reading interesting fiction or essays. Unless we break through the rigid idea of equating reading to studying, it would be difficult to find joy in reading.