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为何中国人不爱阅读书籍?

2014-02-28    来源:英语点津    【      美国外教 在线口语培训

Wisdom of the printed page

在一架从法兰克福飞往上海的航班上,一名印度工程师发现一排又一排的中国乘客都在埋头用苹果平板电脑玩游戏或者看电影,没有人在读书。

Chinese reluctance to read deeply underlines the nation's recent departure from the era of subsistence and its current obsession with affluence.

On a flight from Frankfurt to Shanghai, an Indian engineer noticed row after row of Chinese passengers deep into their iPads, playing games or watching movies. None was doing any reading.

Meng Shamei, the Chinese name of this engineer, posted his or her observation online and got a tidal wave of responses, most of which corroborated his or her view.

I have to admit I have not done my due diligence to verify the identity of this person. There have been frequent stories of Chinese posing as foreigners to give a semblance of objectivity to their criticism of China. The title "Harvard professor" has been used or rather, abused, so often it has turned into something of a joke.

To even a casual observer, what Meng wrote was not surprising. Another posting a few years ago by a Chinese passenger noticed the difference between first class and regular class: Those sitting in first class tend to read while those in regular class play games.

For me, the biggest shock came when Han Han, the young writer with enormous influence on China's youth, was asked by a reporter about his reading habits and he answered that he read only magazines. As if to show some proof, the accompanying photo revealed very few books on his bookshelf.

Before we get to "Why Chinese do not read", I'll reveal the spoiler, which is the most frequent defense. "We read. We just do not read in the same way as the old generations do. We rely on modern gadgets for faster access."

It is true that you cannot claim that only content on a printed page is knowledge. Anything that's printed can be displayed digitally. There are millions of books available in digital form. And true electronic books can incorporate sound and video, thus enhancing the reading experience. Print is going the way of dinosaurs, many forecast. Even if they don't vanish completely, books will become a niche item a la long-playing records.

To those who believe they can get anything and everything from the Web, I'll hereby add my two cents' worth: Yes, you can, but you won't do it. I download thousands of books, but I use them for research, a sort of personal database for specific information. I've also noticed my friends and colleagues read fiction only on their tablets. Simply because a medium is capable of something does not mean people or a significant number of them will swarm to it for that purpose.

I believe reference books are most easily replaced by their digital versions and the kind of essay collections popular among China's literati are the most unlikely to make the transition.

Now, I'm not going to cite statistics about Chinese consumption of books. While they invariably paint a bleak picture compared with previous generations or advanced countries, the truth could be even bleaker. My publishers (I work with several publishing houses in China) told me that most of the best-sellers in China would not even make the popular list. The reason: They are textbooks or supplement reading material, in other words, books that students are forced to read, or rather, forced to buy.

So, let's compare China's best-seller list with that of the New York Times. While the latter has a mix of serious books, especially about history, and celebrity memoirs, the former is almost totally fluff. A walk through an airport bookstore will bring you more doom and gloom: mostly how-to-get-rich titles written by those who've done it or who claim to have the secret recipe.

On top of that, there are buyers of books in China who decorate their rooms with wall-to-wall tomes but never bother to open the pages. As a result, a cottage industry has appeared that churns out thick volumes that have nothing between the covers, perfect for decoration.

Yes, people do read in China to enrich their bank accounts, but not to enrich themselves holistically. Sure, this is a trend, which means it does not apply to everyone. The terms "fragmentary reading" or "light reading" are efforts to encapsulate this phenomenon of a nation whose people have only recently unfettered the shackles of poverty and have not found the need to elevate themselves onto a higher plane of enlightenment and enrichment. Not yet.

One reads classics such as Confucius' Analects or Shakespeare not to pass examinations or provide grist for the water-cooler mill, but to absorb nutrients from the wealth shared by humanity and to make ourselves better people.

However, it would be unfair to compare the current generation with their ancestors. In antiquity, the ability to read effectively divided people into haves and have-nots. It became a channel through which a few from the disenfranchised classes moved up the social ladder. As a whole, the vast majority remained illiterate. As the benefits of basic education envelop the entire Chinese population, the stumbling block for this most basic level of reading has been removed. Now, it's up to each individual to decide what kind of information or knowledge he or she is willing to pursue. A school or a teacher can demand that you read what is mandatory, but unless you design a comprehensive curriculum that incorporates the wealth-enriching and the soul-enriching, you'll probably push those "useless" books down to the bottom of your priority list.


The computer age, with its unlimited data-crunching capability, has unleashed a treasure trove of information. For someone long shielded from data and information, the rawness and liveliness can be spellbinding. But it takes tons of information to be distilled into knowledge.

In our society there is an undercurrent of skepticism and aversion toward knowledge, which in the old days was spoon-fed with little room left for questioning. People, therefore, want to be closer to the source and conduct their own little investigation or analysis, which sometimes leads to new revelations. As a result, the pendulum has swung from the end of blind acceptance of everything printed to the other end of DIY scrutiny of every piece of data. I have to say this correction was needed and will eventually balance out the weight of both information and knowledge, which tend to be embodied in digital and print respectively.

The road from knowledge to wisdom has equally been subverted by the digital revolution. The epiphanies derived from reading Hamlet or Li Bai's poems have been displaced by 12-step programs and morsels of wisdom that zap through cyberspace. On a positive note, they can be seen as CliffsNotes to the real thing; but this quasi-sagacity serves to lull its readership into a false sense of enlightenment. Wisdom cannot be drummed into you through rote learning, nor can it always be boiled down to 140 characters. It has to come from learning through personal experiences or through books, which are essentially those aspects of others' experiences that can be imparted and shared.

Serious reading, on whatever platform or in whatever form, has its place in the advance of human civilization. All technological breakthroughs, such as the audio-visual revolution of the previous generation and now the digital revolution, all serve to complement it. Words as the all-powerful embodiment of human knowledge are never overrated and will never be totally replaced. More Chinese will realize their importance as the nation grows into middle-class comfort. The younger generations can afford to read books that are not utilitarian, at least the segment not addicted to Korean soap operas and their face-lifted idols. As Francis Bacon famously said, studies can be "for delight, for ornament, and for ability", and "delight" should rightly include the joy of elevating oneself to a level with a higher vista, which, unlike a high-rise apartment, money alone cannot buy.(英语点津)

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工程师的中文名叫孟莎美,他/她把所见所想发布到网上,收到无数回复,大都印证了他/她的看法。

我得承认自己没有尽职调查这个人的身份。为了能更客观地批判中国,曾出现很多中国人冒充老外的故事。人们滥用“哈佛教授”的头衔,以致于它成了笑话一般。

其实稍微观察下,孟莎美写的现象也见怪不怪。几年前,有个中国乘客留意到头等舱和经济舱的区别,并放到了网上:那些坐头等舱的乘客往往在阅读,而经济舱乘客在玩游戏。

就我而言,最大的震惊是,对中国年轻一代影响深远的年轻作家韩寒被记者问及其阅读习惯时,他说他只看杂志。还附上了一张显示他书架上很少书的图片作证明。

在我们问“为什么中国人不阅读”前,还是我来揭晓吧,这是最常见的回击“我们阅读啊,只是不像老一代那样阅读而已。我们可以通过现代玩意来更方便地阅读。”

我们不能说只有纸质书上的内容才是知识。任何纸质内容都可以数字化地显示出来,无数纸质书都有电子版本。电子书还可以配上声音和视频,从而更享受阅读过程,这都没错。很多人都预测印刷业和恐龙走在同一条道上——都会逐渐消失。即使纸质书籍不会完全消失,也会随着时间变成小众产品。

对于那些认为可以从互联网获取任何信息的人,我想说:是的,你可以,但是你不会的。我下载了成千上万本电子书作为个人资料库用于搜索特定信息。我也发现我的朋友和同事们都只用平板电脑看小说。一个媒介具备某种功能并不代表大家会为这个功能蜂拥而来。

我认为纸质工具书更易被其电子版取代,而受中国文人喜爱的散文集是最不可能被代替的。

现在我不会引用关于中国人阅读量的数据。当这个的数据与前几代人或者发达国家相比显得苍白时,事实可能更悲剧。我的出版商(我和中国几家出版商有合作)告诉我中国的畅销书大多数还不足以上畅销清单。原因是:它们是教科书或者补充阅读材料,换句话说,这些书都是学生不得不读或者买的书。

那我们来对比下中国和纽约时报发布的畅销书清单吧。纽约时报的清单中包含一些严肃的书籍,尤其是关于历史、名人自传,而中国的清单意义不大。在机场的书店转一圈,你会发现更加无望:几乎都是那些富人或者声称有致富秘诀的人关于如何致富的书。

最重要的是,中国有很多人都用满墙的书架将家里装饰得像个书香世家,但是却很少翻几页书。所以,制作砖头书的家庭手工业出现了,砖头书只有封面,没有内容,最合适装饰。

是的,中国人会通过读书来使银行账户充实,但是却没有让自己全面地丰盈起来。当然,这只是一种趋势,并不适用于任何一个人。“碎片阅读”或者“轻阅读”这样的词浓缩了中国这样一种现象——刚脱离贫困走上小康的人们觉得没必要把自己提升到一个更具启蒙性的阶段。还没必要。

读孔子的《论语》或者莎士比亚的著作不是为了通过考试或者任何实际用途,而是为了从人文财富中吸收营养,使自己变得更好。

然而,把现代人与先人对比是不公平的。在古代,读书的能力把人们分成了贫富两个阶级。被剥削者中的少数人通过读书爬上更高的社会阶级。总体上,大多数人还是目不识丁。随着整个中华民族都可以享受到基础教育,读书认字最基本的绊脚石已经不存在了。而现在取决于每个人愿意获得什么信息或者知识。学校或者老师可以要求你阅读必须读的材料,但是除非课程结合了物质财富和精神财富两方面,否则你很有可能会忽视那些“没用”的书。

计算机时代拥有无穷无尽的数据和宝贵的信息。对于长期信息封闭的人来说,计算机时代的新鲜感和活力充满诱惑。但是要无数的信息才能提炼成知识。

如今的社会充斥着一种对知识的厌恶和怀疑论,然而在过去,人们毫不犹豫地汲取知识。大家都想跟接近知识的源头,再加上自己一些小调查或者分析,有时能有新的启示。因此,社会出现两种极化现象,一种是尽信书,一种是亲自核查每一个数据。我想说,我们需要纠正,并最终在无论是数据化还是纸质的信息与知识间平衡。

知识转化到智慧的道路同样被数字化革命颠覆了。阅读哈姆雷特或者李白诗集的顿悟被充斥网络的12步获得智慧课程代替。好的一面是,它们可以作为货真价实书籍的导读,但这种类智慧误导读者进入一种错误的启发感。智慧是不可以通过机械阅读来灌输的,也不总是可以归结成140个字。它必须通过个人经历或者书籍获得,也就是他人那些“可以借鉴和分享的经历”。

深入阅读,无论是通过哪种平台或者形式,都在人类文明发展史上扮演着不可或缺的地位。所有的技术突破,例如上一代的视听革命和当代的数字革命,都是为了起到补充的作用。作为人类知识一个全能的体现——文字的作用永远不会被夸大,也永远不会被完全代替。随着中国发展到中产阶级阶段,越来越多的中国人会意识到文字的重要性,年轻一代也会读那些非功利性的书籍,至少那部分没有沉迷韩剧和整容偶像的人会读。正如弗兰西斯·培根的名言,读书“足以怡情,足以博采,足以长才”,“怡情”应该包含提升自我至一个更高视野的喜悦,而这是仅用金钱就可以买到的高层公寓远远不及的。


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