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).
To say 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.
Another 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.
In 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 environment.
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.