_ I've been eliciting New Year's Resolutions from my ESL students here in China. Most of them, as I expected, take their allotted five minutes to write two sentences declaring wishful freedom from homework in 2012. Some of them wrote that they would finagle an iPad out of their parents, or that they'd beat their highest score on whatever computer game they favor. But two kids, out of the 200 or so I've asked so far, said that this year they want to read more books.
Students in China don't get a lot of leisure time for pleasure reading. They've got lots of books, sure, but the pressure to do well on the standardized tests here is phenomenal, and so most of the books they spend their days with are dry textbooks. And I don't mean to malign textbooks here. There exist wonderful, educational books that excite students' imaginations as well as teach them all that good stuff you need to do well in school. But, I haven't seen many of these texts here in China. At the moment, to teach 10- and 11-year-olds, I'm using a book first written in the 1960s for Greek college students. So, maybe even more than in the West, students learn to equate opening a book with turning off their brains and just memorizing.
I asked one of the two book-loving students how many books she'd read for fun in 2011. She shook her head, like she couldn't even count that high. Encouraged, I pressed her for a number. She bit her lip, rolled her eyes, did all those lovely avoidance techniques that 12-year-olds employ, and then hazarded a guess. “Maybe...10?”
I tried not to let my face fall. Less than one book a month for a girl who professes to really like reading? The poor thing! She told me she just doesn't have the time for much alone time, much book time. The other self-confessed reader admitted it to me just like that--a confession. This student is a boy, and the other boys sitting around him all guffawed when I read his resolution aloud. I went all enthusiastic on him, which I'm sure didn't help his cool factor, either. He hung his head and studied other students' graffiti on his desk. “Comic books,” he whispered, trying to salvage his rep. “I read comic books.” I tried to ignore the paperback Harry Potter translation sticking out of his book bag and moved on to the next student, but I started wondering about reading habits in China. It seems to be actively discouraged in schools.
I'd just read an article from the China Daily—perhaps not the best newspaper ever written—enthusing over the boom in reading in China. That's great, and I hope it's true. But for such a huge country, with supposedly such a high literacy rate, I was surprised at how few Chinese novels were featured in the article. Two of the 'Top Ten' books are by authors not based in China and four of them are non-fiction. If you can open it, I think this is the link .
My students didn't want to talk about it, and we had other things to cover that day, so I let it go, but I remain curious about what is offered to young adults in China for reading. Some of my students last year showed me some paranormal-romance type of books they were reading, translated from Japanese, and, I think, adapted from either an animated TV series or a comic book. The Harry Potter and Twilight series are marginally popular among my students, though because of the movies rather than for their own right as books, the kids tell me.
I tried not to compare my students' habits to my own childhood reading. I had the luxury of homeschooling and a fierce love of books that found me reading as a kid even while I brushed my teeth. Then, as now, I read a book a week, or more.
Since I got my Kindle (for Christmas last year, thanks again, parents!) I think I've upped even my own high average. I have an 'already read' collection on the e-reader where I stick fiction that I might want to have handy to browse again. I've got 37 titles in there, plus about 10 non-fiction books I finished in a different folder, plus I'm going to estimate another 10 to 25 titles that I deleted from the device afterward, either because I didn't like them enough to keep them or because I got them from a source other than Amazon and they were already backed up on my computer. So, in 2011 I probably read about 70 books. One of those books was Stephen King's On Writing, where he writes that he reads “everything I can get my hands on” and that much of what he reads influences his writing.
I was interested to see that Goodreads.com, a nice site for book-lovers, has a challenge page where people can set their reading goals up on the Internet and check books off as they finish reading them. When I found the page, there were already 57,502 people participating. Awesome!
My own New Year's Resolution is to create books, not necessarily to consume them. For me reading a book is still as automatic as brushing my teeth—although somewhere in my early teens learned that if you have a book you don't want to get spotty with toothpaste, you leave it out of the bathroom. I was thrilled that last year I met my goal of completing a novel, and this year I'm setting out to do the same.
Happy 2012 everyone. May you see through all your resolutions, literary or not.
Beth is an American freelance writer who has lived in Europe and Asia since 2003. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, still enjoys a peripatetic life. She writes articles and suspense about travel, expatriate living, and many other topics.