Commentary: Has reading for pleasure vanished from our lives forever?
It is that much harder to carve out time for reading as working adults, but even bite-sized re-reads of our favourite books can bring comfort, says award-winning author Christina Sng.
SINGAPORE: Once upon a time, it seemed everyone read for pleasure. My earliest memories saw my dad read the newspaper at the breakfast table every morning, while my mother read to me each night before she tucked me into bed.
On Sundays, I pored over the full-page spreads of comics. At age 7, I began reading stories by Enid Blyton. By my teen years, my nose was permanently stuck in a book - my greatest indulgence spending hours immersed in another world, living countless other lives in wondrous, terrifying adventures.
Now, pleasure reading has become a lost art. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study released in May may have found Singapore students top in reading ability, but it also showed fewer parents reported “enjoying reading a lot”.
For me, it started when I joined the working crowd: After reading emails and reports the whole day, all I could do around 9pm when I reached home was sit in front of the TV and watch CSI before going to sleep.
Then mobile phones arrived. During those in-between moments when I would otherwise be alone with my thoughts, I was reading the news or messages on my Nokia.
THE GOOD AND BAD OF READING ON SCREENS
Only when I got my first smartphone did I read for pleasure again. When I tried, I realised there was a new problem.
Researchers have found that our eyes experience strain while looking at screens for prolonged periods of time and our brains can't focus as well or absorb as much than when reading on paper.
Human beings never had to stare into backlights for long periods in our history. No wonder our eyes can't adapt. We're all currently participating in a global experiment to discover how screens affect our eyes and our brains.
I struggle to read articles on devices now with older eyes, never mind a novel. But at least with digital reads, readers aren’t beholden to the printed choices of publishers. With e-books, I find myself more selective with font size and a balanced contrast between the ink colour and the page, for personalised readability.
THERE ARE TOO MANY BOOKS
Readability has become more important than ever: How the content is written - short and snappy to keep the reader's brain active and interested; and how it is displayed - shorter paragraphs, more white space and the use of sans serif font. It's used in most web content to keep you reading.
Essential as these elements may be, all form and no substance makes for unmemorable reading. The bar is higher when it comes to leisure reading.
Only the most engaging writing kept me reading to the end. The first novel I read on my phone was The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Her prose pulled me into her dystopian world and did not let me go until her story was done.
Of course, shifting priorities as we grow older also change our reading habits. It is that much harder to carve out time for reading when time can be spent on more important things to us, like working extra hours to keep up with inflation or spending time with family.
New books are constantly being published - never mind the boom in e-books written by artificial intelligence in a matter of days, even hours. Finding a book worth making time for can be a challenging task. We'd probably spend as much time reading book reviews to decide, or simply stick to our favourite authors.
RE-READ BOOKS FOR COMFORT
I've read so much in my youth that those stories still live in my head. I don't feel the pull of new novels as I did when I was younger. Besides, between news and social media, reading a book can feel like more work.
I'm not alone. Studies show people are reading much less now with our devices, our brains attuned to constant stimulation and instant gratification, with information at our literal fingertips.
Ask the right question and Google will tell you the answer. As a person who used to hate knowing the endings of intriguing stories, I find myself on Wikipedia searching for exactly that.
Occasionally, I pick up one of the 30 books always surrounding me and pat it with great affection before indulging in a poem, short story, or essay I’ve read many times before. Reading a familiar piece offers bite-sized morsels of nostalgia and a sense of comfort, but that feeling doesn’t last.
If we want to read for pleasure again, it can be done. Our brains are wonderful, pliable things and we can rewire them to slow down and slip us back into other worlds, into other dimensions, down the rabbit hole.
It may feel uncomfortable initially, but read a little each day. Schedule time for it - first a chapter, then two.
Re-read your favourite books first. The familiarity helps immersion. Then, when you're back to reading a novel all the way through again, try something new.
My plan is to reach old age and hopefully still have my eyes to enjoy reading once more. I just put reading for pleasure on my bucket list. It may not happen this year or next year, but one day I will.
Christina Sng is a poet-writer-artist and the first Singaporean to win three Bram Stoker Awards.