Thursday, January 7, 2010

What Singaporeans read

What Singaporeans read
Jan 04, 2010
The Straits Times

By magdalen ng

Singaporeans love their chick lit and horror. The proof lies in the most borrowed books lists from the network of public libraries in Singapore.

Over the National Library Board's financial year 2008, from April last year to March this year, the bulk of the top 10 most checked out titles in Young People English fiction list were written by chick lit authors.

Chick lit refers to fiction written for and targeted at young women.

The Adult fiction list had a little more variety, but bestselling chick lit stalwarts such as Sandra Brown, Sophie Kinsella, Amanda Quick and Nora Roberts took up nearly half the list.

Horror stories, particularly Singapore ghost stories, are also hot with borrowers, accounting for all but one of the top 10 books borrowed from the Adult English titles in the Singapore Collection during that period. To make it into the lists, each book has to be borrowed between 347 and 4,410 times over the time period.

Singaporeans, it seems, seek escapism in their reading material.

National University of Singapore's sociology professor Alexius Pereira says: 'The fiction list probably signals that readers are after entertainment rather than intellectualisation.'

He adds: 'We would expect that people gravitate towards 'fun' books rather than heavy works of fiction.'

His observation is borne out by what some borrowers at the National Library told Life!. Ms Clarissa Chang, a 23-year-old editor for assessment books, borrrows mainly chick lit books whenever she visits the library.

'Life is hard enough, so I would rather let loose and read books that are nobrainers,' she says, naming author Jennifer Crusie as one of her favourites.

Pharmacy assistant Nana Raihanah, 21, is addicted to horror for the same reason: 'Ghost stories are much more exciting and fun to read, so I usually borrow these books.'

Another trend evident from the most borrowed lists is the impact of popular culture, especially in the form of movies, on Singaporeans' borrowing patterns.

Over a period of three financial years from April 2007 to November this year, books which have been turned into films were popular choices with borrowers.

Hence, the presence of titles such as Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, a tale of friendship between two boys growing up in Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion, which was turned into a movie in 2007, and Sue Kidd Monk's The Secret Life Of Bees, the tale of a young girl and her friendship with her nanny in 1960s America whose movie adaptation starred Dakota Fanning and Queen Latifah.

Ms Heng Huey Bin, a librarian with the National Library Board, says that movies 'bring alive the storyline'.

She adds: 'The original novels gain popularity as people watch the movie and are interested to find out more about the characters and further immerse themselves in it or the sequels.'

For housewife Fanny Mak, whether a book has been adapted for a movie is a gauge of how well written the book is.

The 32-year-old takes her two children to the library at least twice a month but she does not have much time to read or to slowly choose the books she wants to borrow.

She says: 'If the book has been made into a movie, it should be quite decent. So far, I haven't been disappointed.'

She has read Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, which was made into a movie in 2003, starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson, as well as J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings series.

She adds: 'But these books are usually hot property and sometimes I have to go a few times before I finally get to borrow them.'

Just as Ms Mak relies on movie adaptations as a yardstick, borrowers at the library depend on recommendations from various sources. So the popularity of a book spikes when it is recommended by the media or the National Library Board.

Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time took top spot in the Young People English fiction list, and The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho was second on the Adult English fiction list. Both titles were recommended for nationwide reading during the Read! Singapore Campaign 2007.

The annual reading campaign is organised by the board to promote reading. And borrowing of these titles increases during the three-month-long campaign because all the libraries will display the 16 recommended titles prominently in four languages.

Recommendations are a fast and easy way to get to the best books.

Student Songma Jin Yang, 16, usually relies on endorsements from friends or magazines to pick out books at the library.

'I will browse through the other books in the library only when I can't find the books that I want in the system,' she says.

The National Library Board buys about 50 copies of each book and for more popular titles, they can buy up to 180 copies.

'The number of reservations and popularity of previous works by the same author or in the same series gives us some indication of the anticipated popularity,' says Ms Heng.

But whatever it is that Singaporeans are borrowing, they are continuing to borrow from the library.

The total number of English book loans has been consistent for FY2007 to FY2008. In the last financial year, there were 8.2 million loans of the 1.84 million English books in the board's lending collection.

Retiree James Tan says: 'I have so much time on my hands and I read at least one book every week.'

The 56-year-old adds: 'If I had to buy all of them, I'd be penniless. The libraries are my best friends.'

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