March 9, 2017

Riding the subway in Singapore? Buy this mini-book!


Everyone’s favorite city-state is up to more book-related shenanigans.

As we’ve reported, in the past few years Singapore has been home to curious innovations like book vending machines and robots that help librarians with the burdensome task of reshelving returns. And by many indicators, it seems like Singapore is a reading city. The government reports literacy at ninety-seven percent and book sales up one percent year over year. (Although, I’d like to make a brief digression here and ask why the fuck the Singaporean government bundles optical products with books in their economic retail summary? Seriously, if anyone has an answer please write me. That one makes no sense.)

There’s more. Just a few months ago the Straits Times, Singapore’s biggest news daily, ran a report by Olivia Ho that the 2015 Singapore Writers Festival was the gathering’s best year on record, with over 20,000 in attendance. (For the sake of comparison, the Brooklyn Book Festival, one of the largest in the US, draws between 30,000 to 35,000 attendees each year.)

Clearly, Singapore has an interest in books. And now, the Washington Post’s Amanda Erickson reports, a new government-sponsored program is selling tiny books with local metro tickets. They cost around ten dollars and fit easily in a pocket. (Sound familiar?) Why the push for tiny books? It turns out that while the book market in Singapore is strong, only about forty percent of the population reports having read a work of literature in the past year, much lower than the literacy rate might suggest.

Aside from the many other things the social media generation may be doing with its time, the statistic raises questions about censorship and self-censorship in the famously authoritarian country. In 2014, three children’s books were briefly banned in the country for their inclusion of gay subject matter. Erickson writes that many publishers in Singapore, which are accredited and often subsidized by the state, try to skirt any problems by being as uncontroversial as possible. Contributing to the problem further, she writes, is a book publishing culture built on test prep for students. With high-stakes testing as part of the education landscape, it’s not a surprise that leisure reading hasn’t taken root among young people constantly trying to better their test scores.

The question, then, is this: can short, $10 books bolster the reading scene of Singapore?



Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.