The decades-old Kingstone Bookstore branch on Taipei’s Chongqing S Road, known as the city’s “book street,” will be closing its doors in June as the landlord chose not to renew the lease, meaning that the campaign to save the book street has collapsed.
Perhaps due to the store’s long history and the historical significance of the building that houses it, many commentators have suggested that the government should follow the Chinese government’s example and grant bookstores a tax exemption to save the industry.
This suggestion is tantamount to using taxpayers’ money to subsidize book prices and promote book sales, but this is already taking place on a daily basis in online and brick-and-mortar stores, as newly published books fail to be sold even at a 21 percent discount and unsold books are returned to publishers.
Schools and culture departments have been issuing gift certificates and awards, but these attempts are just a drop in the ocean and will not be enough to encourage reading or cultivate long-term reading habits.
Annual library readership numbers, which are publicized with great fanfare, are not necessarily of much reference value, as the ability to borrow books from other libraries online means that books are often borrowed and returned at the same counter in just a few hours. Moreover, borrowed books are not necessarily read. How else can the slumping publishing business be explained?
There are two main reasons for the decline in reading:
First, reading is a personal and spiritual activity, but the government thinks it is a matter of pricing.
Administrative agencies and staff responsible for promoting reading narrow the issue down to quantifiable campaigns, holding up a few readers as examples and showing them off in newspapers.
Reading is a personal and spiritual process, so is it possible to help people find the peace of mind required to concentrate on reading with the help of grand promotional activities? Cultural literacy cannot be cultivated and rooted in a mind that is constantly invaded by the hubbub of the outside world.
If reading continues to be affected by the negative legacy of the imperial examination system and the idea that all worldly pursuits are inferior to reading, will it ever be possible for someone who lusts for money and power to nurture a reading habit?
The second reason is domestic authors’ inability to compare with authors in China or other nations when it comes to creating interesting content and displaying a cultural understanding worth reading and buying.
Taiwanese books are mostly about farcical gossip, food, drink and entertainment. The nation boasts a huge number of publications every year, but most are vulgar and tawdry.
Reading is not about whether a bookstore has a hipster atmosphere, nor should it be measured by data like the stock market. What really matters is peace of mind and solitude.
Chang Hsun-ching is a writer.
Translated by Chang Ho-ming
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