So What Are You Reading Today?


In the age of digital technology, the habit of reading jostles hard with live streaming and aimless scrolling on social media. Surprisingly – or not – Penangites seem to prefer old-school print.

The Prince of Wales Island Gazatte.

Penang’s history of publishing is a remarkable one. In 1806, when it was made a Presidency of India, the first issue of the Government Gazette – later renamed the Prince of Wales Island Gazette in 1807 – was produced in a humble printing press on Beach Street. It was the first newspaper in all of South-East Asia.1

Historian and author of Penang: The Fourth Presidency of India 1805-1830, Volume 1: Ships, Men and Mansions, Marcus Langdon, noted that the few Europeans who came with Captain Francis Light to the colony brought their materials and books with them. This gave rise to Malaya’s first public English language library, the Prince of Wales Island Library.2

In Langdon’s book, he remarks that in 1810, “a census of the Penang area showed that there were around 25,000 people in Penang Island and Province Wellesley. Of that, there were only about 150 Europeans, maximum. They represented a very small portion of the population.” Despite the small number of members, financial struggles and the constant need for a permanent setting, the library soon became unrivalled in that it acquired a vast collection of valuable books, journals, newspapers and other reading material.

Penang is also the birthplace of many English newspapers, such as The Straits Echo and The Star, while the country's oldest Chinese newspaper, Kwong Wah Yit Poh, was also established in the city, in 1910.

With the rise of on-demand content and with the ubiquitousness of the internet, media consumption is increasingly occurring in digital formats. Where does that leave print – and reading?

Last year's George Town Literary Festival. The festival won the International Excellence Awards 2018: The Literary Festival Award at the 2018 London Book Fair.

The Battle Between Print and Digital

To find out the reading habits of Penangites, a survey was conducted encompassing 356 respondents.

Surprisingly, the results of the survey point to an overwhelming preference for reading in print: 241 respondents said they preferred reading in print, citing reasons such as books are “more fun to hold”, and that there are “too many pop-up ads or instant messages” when they read online.

Those who are for reading digitally argue that carrying a portable device such as a phone or a tablet is less of a burden than lugging a book around.

Even so, when it comes to reading for work or business-related purposes, one respondent said that while he prefers to read books and newspapers, for business news and current issues, he much prefers using his mobile phone.

The top three reading materials that respondents prefer are books, free online news portals and newspapers. Between these three, 283 respondents said that books were a preference while 262 said they preferred online news portals like The Star and New Straits Times; 205 respondents chose physical newspapers.

On the bottom rung, only 32 respondents said they read digital magazines with paid subscriptions, while 34 respondents said they listened to audiobooks; and 40 respondents were paid subscribers of online news portals such as Malaysiakini.

The pattern appears to be that price heavily influences the reading habits of respondents. At the same time, while they enjoy print, respondents consider electronic devices and digital media an aid in forging stronger reading habits.

A large portion of respondents fall within the age group of 16-24. They make up 40% of the reading population, with the second biggest number being those within the 25-34 age group. Those within these age groups are digital natives who grew up during the technological boom – an era when the internet and digital media as well as tech-like smartphones, iPads and tablets, among other gadgets, have always been within reach and have even been implemented as teaching aids in schools.

And yet, with a learning and social environment that seems to point to an overwhelming preference for electronic media, these young Penangites still prefer the physical feel of print.

Gareth Richards.

"Missing in action: young, male, Chinese. If we see a young Malaysian male, Chinese, in his 20s, coming in to buy a book, we faint. It’s like the lesser spotted exotic bird.”

The nature of print media is indeed a sensory one – it engages one’s sense of sight, sound, smell and touch. Furthermore, reading from print forces readers to slow down and requires a more concentrated effort compared to reading an electronic device;3 perhaps it is this need to slow down in an ever-changing, fast-paced world that adds to its attractiveness. A study conducted by the University of Sussex4 in the UK also shows that reading can reduce stress by 68% – that’s even more relaxing than listening to music or talking a walk!

The physical sensations of print media act as an anchor for one’s memory5 – the action of dog-earing a book or using random household items as a marker makes it easier to remember, compared to bookmarking a link from the internet. It can be reasoned that the nature of learning and retrieving information plays a role in the preference for print over electronic media.

Putting Penang on the Literary Map

Penang is home to the George Town Literary Festival (GTLF), one of the biggest literary festivals in South-East Asia.

Festival director Bernice Chauly, who has worked tirelessly on the festival since it began in 2011 with five writers, expects to have over 50 speakers this year. With the amount of passion and hard work that has been poured into the festival, it is little wonder that GTLF won the International Excellence Awards 2018: The Literary Festival Award at the 2018 London Book Fair.

In the eight years that it has been running, Chauly has observed that people come from all over the region, Europe and beyond. “The numbers grow year after year. We have writers who love the fest and who keep wanting to come back, so it’s a really great sign when this happens.”

For a festival to grow so large in a small state like Penang, Chauly says this is due to the city itself being perfect to navigate for an event of this size. “We use heritage venues, which our audiences love, and we have a great variety of spaces to choose from. All this adds to the atmosphere –it’s a dream location for a festival such as this one.”

When asked about whether technological advancements have aided or harmed reading habits, Chauly says, “Books will never cease. There is just nothing like a book. Devices may come and go, but holding a new book, or the thrill of finally finding that desired book, or in my case, finding a rare first edition, are all part of the thrill of reading and collecting books.”

Technology has however helped give GTLF media coverage on a wide scale. “People write, take pictures of panels they like, writers they admire, and share their thoughts on social media, so it’s made it more accessible to people who are not at the festival itself.”

Where the future is concerned, the focus will still rest on writers and society, but there is potential for e-publishing and flash fiction workshops to be included in the festival.

Hikayat Bookshop.

GTLF takes place on November 22-25 and revolves around the theme, “The State Of Freedom”.

An Absent Demographic

“Missing in action: young, male, Chinese,” says Gareth Richards – writer, editor, educator, owner of the indie bookshop Gerakbudaya, and co-founder of the arts space Hikayat. “If we see a young Malaysian male, Chinese, in his 20s, coming in to buy a book, we faint. It’s like the lesser spotted exotic bird.”

He deduces that they are less likely to come into the bookstore because “there is no peer pressure to read for pleasure or enlightenment – none whatsoever. It’s purely instrumental.” In line with the survey, the biggest reason respondents read is to keep up with current news – a fact which bolsters his assumptions.

Richards thinks that the role of an indie bookstore is to function as a broader stream to enlarge democratic space, project civil society voices and empower marginalized groups – be it those who are marginalised by race, sex, religion or sexual orientation. “The books we carry offer a range of progressive viewpoints, especially in the Malaysian context where you’ve had a one-party rule for 61 years, authoritarianism, censorship, and the narrowing of democratic and civil society.

“Our existence and the existence of the books we carry are a form of pushback to the narrowing of democratic space. We provide alternative voices – critical voices – which are absolutely necessary. We want to provide alternatives. In many ways, Gerakbudaya is a political project that talks about transformation and change.”

When it comes to book sales, Richards finds the local reading trend to be contrary to that in other countries – where the indie bookstores in Europe and the rest of Asia are filled with translated Asian works, this fascination with our diasporic literature is not reflected in Penang. “I sell more Tan Twan Eng books to Dutch, female backpackers than I do to local Chinese from Penang. There’s something counterintuitive to the market reaction that has slightly bewildered me.”

Richards opened his bookstore in 2014 during the lowest point in the global bookstore trade and at the high-point of e-readers. Today, Gerakbudaya is in its fourth year. Not only that, it has now opened a second shop along Lebuh Pantai.

An expansion such as this isn’t insignificant, especially at a time when some bookstores in other arts of Malaysia are faltering.6 Our survey shows that 104 respondents regularly visit bookstores; and only 17 respondents say they do not.

PINKS festival is an opportunity for families to participate in wholesome educational and fun activities.

The survey also found that 249 respondents prefer to purchase their reading material from physical bookstores, while only 99 respondents say they purchase their reading material online.

Richards speculates that one of the reasons book sales have picked up is because bookstores have made themselves into more attractive places, and that attractive book cover designs have been recognised as a notable marketing tool.

Regarding e-readers and reading apps, Richards says he no longer sees them as competition but as complementary ways of reading. However he admits that he is unable to read from a tablet in the same manner he would a book. “I think the action of pulling out a book, opening it up, getting your bookmark there and reading it is a more concentrated form of engagement. I think there’s an aesthetic dimension – the book as an object. I also think there’s a cognitive dimension.

“The few times I have picked up a tablet, I interrogated myself and found myself perhaps not quite focusing in the same way or depth. I wouldn’t be surprised if I was not untypical,” says Richards. Based on the results of the survey, which shows a preference for print, he certainly isn’t alone.

Starting Them Young

Reading, as a habit, takes time to be inculcated. Parents need to make sure that their children are in an environment where reading often takes place as a means of leisure. Unfortunately, not all parents have the time or the financial stability to make reading a priority in the household. This is where the Penang Education Council (PEC) comes in.

Fatimah Hassan, who manages PEC, says that they often go into the villages and areas that are less privileged to carry out programmes that engage children as young as eight in reading and writing activities. Two notable programmes are the Creative Learning in a Community Setting programme and the Penang International Kids Storytelling (PINKS) festival.

PEC's recent community programme at Kampung Melayu, Air Itam.

PINKS started in 2010 with the intention of nurturing reading – the idea was to bring the pleasure of reading and storytelling to children whose parents do not have the time or knowledge to tell stories to their children, and was particularly aimed at underprivileged children from rural kindergartens and orphanages.

PEC invites world-class storytellers to the festival to help promote literacy, creativity and intellectual development; the sharing of stories by people from different cultures fosters a better understanding of the world. All round, PINKS is an opportunity for families to participate in wholesome educational and fun activities.

The idea for the Creative Learning in a Community Setting programme was initiated by Fatimah, who has worked as the project administrator since it began as a remedial English programme for students who are weak in the language.

Designed with children from underprivileged backgrounds in mind, the programme includes a combination of art, music, storytelling, a play and games to create a fun learning experience. Keeping core literacy skills at the centre of the programme (reading, writing, speaking and listening), her team goes into economically deprived areas and spends about eight to 10 sessions that usually last half a day each with children and adolescents.

Some of the places they have gone to are Taman Sri Janggus, Machang Bubok, Bagan Luar and Batu Maung. “In Batu Maung, the children would cycle to the centre, and those who could not were ferried by the village chief or his wife. There was a mother who, at the end of the programme, came and congratulated us for bringing a difference to her daughter’s life. Her daughter was an introvert, she said, but by joining the programme, she has made a lot of friends and even stood up in front of the crowd to read a story,” says Fatimah.

When asked how their reading habits have changed over the course of 10 years, a huge majority said they are reading more now than ever before, and it’s thanks to digital media, and to an extent to the continued strong demand for print.

She understands the difficulty these children face when they stay in an area where it is not customary to speak, read or write in English. Having professionals such as child psychologists, educators and consultants come in, free of charge, to conduct sessions that allow the children to not only learn, but also freely express themselves in a psychologically healthy manner, is incredibly helpful.

“We also need to make the leaders of the area responsible – we need to empower them. It really does take a village to raise a child,” Fatimah says. “If this is the effect of spending eight days with these children, can you imagine what can happen if the same thing was done in a school setting, where teachers have over 300 days with their students?”

At the school level, the Nilam (“Nadi Ilmu Amalan Membaca”, or “reading as the pulse of knowledge”) programme, which was launched in 1999, encourages students to record the books they have read. The programme was reportedly recently relaunched to include magazines and journals.7

Reading Isn’t Dead

From the founding of the country’s first library and the birth of the first newspaper in the region, to becoming the proud home of an award-winning literary festival, Penang has had an incredibly long and illustrious history with the written word.

And it is a relationship that continues to burgeon. Through the survey, it is found that reading materials in both print and digital media happily coincide, depending on the purpose and type of content. There is no displacement or replacement of print, merely more choices for knowledge consumers.

Respondents have also shown a marked improvement in their reading habits over the last decade. When asked how their reading habits have changed over the course of 10 years, a huge majority said they are reading more now than ever before, and it’s thanks to digital media, and to an extent to the continued strong demand for print.

For reading habits to survive and grow in the age of on-demand content, the environment needs to be conducive. In this vein, agents such as indie bookstores, children’s programmes and literary festivals play a big role in sustaining Penang’s reading ecosystem.

Rebecca Vega is a writer and a singer, and has had her hand in one too many cookie jars. When she’s not working, she’s usually found working. She’s trying to work on that.


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