Koreans now seem simply too familiar with the criticism that they read too little. But a set of recent figures should still embarrass and worry them.
According to household survey data released by the national statistics office early this week, households with two or more members spent an average of 18,690 won (about $18) per month on buying books last year. The figure, down 1.8 percent from the previous year, was the lowest in 11 years since the survey was first conducted nationwide in 2003. Given that the average price of books published last year stood at 14,678 won, the monthly number of books purchased per Korean family remained at less than two.
Reduced expenditure on books may partly reflect the financial difficulties of working-class families. But household income and consumption have increased in recent years, albeit at a slowing pace. According to Statistics Korea, monthly household income grew by 2.1 percent from a year earlier in 2013, with monthly consumption spending edging up 0.9 percent.
Regretful to say, what these figures suggest is that Koreans have increasingly lost interest in ― or time for, some argue ― reading books. A biennial survey by the Culture Ministry showed adult Koreans read 9.2 books on average last year, down from 9.9 books from 2011. Their average daily reading time also decreased by 2.4 minutes to 23.5 minutes over the cited period.
It may be hard for Korean workers and students, who have been compelled to work and study excessively in highly competitive circumstances, to find time to read books unrelated to their job or studies. But they are also likely to spend time playing computer and smartphone games rather than reading books.
Koreans should rediscover the value of reading. Though they live in one of the most wired societies in the world, it still requires a certain depth and width of knowledge gained through reading for them to become good citizens who fulfill their potential and have sound opinions. A great deal of properly guided reading can also help them be more creative and make better preparations for the future.
It should be noted that while one’s willingness to read is important, forging a reading-friendly environment is also crucial. From this viewpoint, efforts should be strengthened to build more libraries across the country ― hopefully to put every resident within walking distance of the facilities ― and to organize various events and programs aimed at establishing a strong reading culture. It may also serve this purpose to offer tax deductions on book purchases or provide book vouchers for low-income families, who put aside much less to spend on books.
President Park Geun-hye has advocated cultural prosperity as one of her key policy goals. Encouraging people to read more books will be the foundation for achieving it and building a society in which all people feel happy and find meaning in their lives.