The government is always talking about how Taiwan is a “scholarly society.” With the now defunct Council for Cultural Affairs and its new incarnation, the Ministry of Culture, the government is also using the word “culture” on a daily basis.
This is interesting because, on average, people living in Taiwan only read — or at least buy — two books a year. That means, compared to the populations of other countries, the nation is being left choking in the dust of those hurtling ahead.
If the people living in a country have yet to formulate any cultural aspirations to speak of, one cannot really talk of that country as being advanced, no matter how economically prosperous it appears on the surface.
Reading is essential, whether speaking epistemologically or pedagogically. Reading opens up the mind — is this not how civilized countries and civilized societies, come to be?
Advanced societies place a great deal of emphasis on cultural aspirations for a good reason.
Taiwan was under the control of the Japanese colonial government for the half-century preceding World War II and then under the control of the foreign Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) for more than 60 years.
With the move from Japan’s attempts at culturally assimilating the Taiwanese, to Sinicization under the KMT, there was a change in language and a political paradigm shift, and the impact of this on reading and writing was considerable.
Political interference during the Martial Law era and commercial interference since it was lifted have been pernicious cultural pathogens, riddling literature, contorting and distorting it, from the writing of it to the publication, printing, distribution and the reading thereof.
Taiwan as a scholarly society exists in nothing but name; it is an evocation to a phantom “culture.” This is the problem we have in this “nation,” that does not function as a nation at all.
Buying books is a commercial transaction between readers and the bookstores or other distribution outlets that provide them. That is the nature of their relationship.
Bookstores stock the books that people want, and bibliophiles browse their shelves, searching for hidden treasures.
Libraries have a different relationship with their readers: One could say they provide a kind of public service. The books are there to loan, you can read them without the need to buy.
The poet Joseph Brodsky (1940 to 1998), winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987, believed that libraries were more important to empires than armies, saying on one occasion: “The empires of the past have been held together, not so much by the legions, but by language.”
How right he was. Libraries must have had a special significance for this self-taught poet, raised in poverty, growing up in the despotic society of post-revolutionary Russia.
There are many areas in rural Taiwan in which people have no access to bookstores, while public libraries line their shelves with pap, not literature, obliged by limited resources to sacrifice quality and keep costs down.
Meanwhile, the government departments responsible for culture are exacerbating the situation, frittering away funds on projects like the Republic of China centennial musical Dreamers (夢想家), immensely costly ventures in praise of the party-state.
In more advanced countries, libraries buy in books based on how many times they are likely to be read, not because of price considerations. In Taiwan, exactly the opposite is done.
In Japan, the Nihon Toshokan Kyokai — the Japan Library Association — supplies libraries with a list of book recommendations every year.
And here in Taiwan? Do we not need to rethink our approach to culture?
Lee Min-yung is a poet.
Translated by Paul Cooper