Cynthia Ozick’s The
Din in the Head discussed in the Joseph Epstein article should spark some
cultural soul searching in other countries. While the Americans worry about the
advance of technological proxies to increase exposure to the crowd, in Asia the
crowd has played a much a different role. The issue isn’t technology. The issue
is the cultural constraints on people wishing to withdraw to innerness, to
separate themselves from the crowd. Meditation springs to mind where such a
withdrawal has broad cultural support.
But does this cultural support
extend to the sphere of reading? The default for most Thais is submerging
themselves in their crowd – friends, colleagues or families. This is not a crowd
of strangers; but a crowd that functions as an inside group. If a Thai were to
make himself unavailable to the in-group because he or she is reading a novel,
that would be thought to be selfish (if not eccentric behavior).
that Thais don’t like to read is to miss the point. Reading requires a kind of
withdrawal from communal life and most Thais would find that lonely and painful.
The trade offs in entertainment, knowledge and information would not be
sufficient compensation for the loss of being part of the crowd.
explanation is in the education system. In China, historically the Mandarin
class was heavily drawn from the peasant class. Scholarship, discipline study
and intellectual pursuit were highly valued at the grass root level. Though a
communal society, the Chinese were able to establish a space where reading and
writing were valued. The practical reality of the system over a thousand years
led to the basis of good government. Thailand has no history of drawing upon the
peasant classes for high government office and service. The Mandarin class
wasn’t drawn from the peasant class.
One might argue that in the West,
reading is a preoccupation of the middle-class and that the late development of
a middle class in Thailand has more to do with a lack of reading tradition than
the absence of a system that tracked the Chinese Mandarin system.
other to read, a private space of solitude is necessary. Such space is needed by
writers to create a narrative universe of words. It is in this confined space
that readers and writers converge, where the twin solitudes share a world
compose of words. Readers often feel that they know the author of the book they
have read. A book may have magically channeled some of their deepest thoughts
and emotions. In any event, a novel can’t be written with the backdrop chatter
of a crowd ringing in the writer’s ear; nor can it be read in such an
It may be that the West, from this cultural perspective, is
becoming more “noisy” and crowded and reading books decreasing, but there will
always be people who check into the quiet space with a book to read. Authors are
responsible to bring to that private space provocative, intelligent, stimulating
and memorable narratives that help to give shape to the ideas about how we live
or how we should live.