Beneath Koh Pich’s grand marquee, the 10th Annual Book Fair burst to life, adorned with small booths lining both sides. The venue transformed into a vibrant tapestry of literature and learning, hosting over 300 booths that enticed a diverse crowd. 

At the December 14-17 Phnom Penh event, bibliophiles and casual readers alike immersed themselves in a four-day celebration of the written word.

The fair wasn’t just a market of books; it served as a harbinger for the future of reading, indicating new directions and possibilities within the literary world. As the sound of pages turning filled the air, the atmosphere buzzed with literary excitement.

Navigating this literary labyrinth, a group of female students from Bak Touk High School moved through the aisles with curiosity shining in their eyes. In their uniforms, they explored each booth with intention, examining vibrant covers and sampling pages as if unearthing hidden treasures.

Sothea Kanhana, part of this eager group, shared: “I’m looking for lesson books to enhance my English, and then I plan to get some novels. I enjoy reading romance and science”.

They strolled through the fair, chatting quietly amid rows of books, each on a quest for that perfect find to unlock new worlds of adventure and learning. 

Literature is where the written word’s power meets eager young minds, opening doors in a dance as old as writing itself. In this dynamic exchange, Minister of Education, Youth and Sport Hang Chuon Naron attended the event, presiding over the opening ceremony on the morning of December 14.

With the theme “Write, Read and Grasp Knowledge”, he reflected on the Kingdom’s rich past, enriched by over 2,000 inscriptions supporting the nation’s scholarly pursuits since ancient times. 

His words harked back to a tradition of nurturing literature, spanning his six decades of compiling a diverse collection of literary documents. 

Emphasising the Cambodia Book Fair’s significance as a cultural nexus for writing and reading in the 21st century, the minister envisions a reading culture that delves into the author’s perspective, fostering analytical skills to enhance comprehension and inspire new, original works. 

Reading realms

Chuon Naron calls on the country’s readers and writers to forge a vibrant literary future rooted in the rich soils of their cultural heritage.

The 10th Cambodia Book Fair drew an exceptional crowd of 200,000 visitors, according to Kok Ros, director of the Department of Books and Reading at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.

Ros, a member of the organising committee, extended gratitude to participating institutions and partners, highlighting the exceptional enthusiasm for books and reading among Cambodian youth.

The primary goal of this national event, as Ros outlined, is to nurture the realms of reading and publishing. Various institutions, including the Ministry of Information with its magazines and newspapers, the education ministry with its educational texts and the culture ministry publishing general content, collaborated to make this fair a reality.

This year’s event also marked a collaborative milestone between the culture and education ministries. Ros noted a significant increase in book purchases, although precise figures remain elusive due to the lack of comprehensive statistics.

“In comparison to some countries, there might be differences, but we observe a distinct upward trend in book reading in our country, especially among the youth, rather than older adults,” he said.

Publishing houses have observed a particular surge in interest for motivational and business start-up books.

Ros discussed the fair’s growth, from 140 booths in 2018 to 200 in 2019. After a two-year Covid-19 hiatus, the number rose to over 200 booths in 2022, and this year saw an impressive expansion to over 300 booths, including sponsor, food and beverage stalls.

The event was supported by approximately 200 young volunteers who balanced their time between the fair and their studies, contributing to the event’s success.

Khieu Kanharith, a dedicated bibliophile and CPP lawmaker who previously served as information minister, is a familiar face at every book fair. 

In a December 18 social media post, he shared his enduring passion for these events.

“Year after year, except during Covid-19, I’ve relished attending the book fairs. This time, I made a special effort to be there and was thrilled to witness more people participating and a greater variety of books spanning different genres,” he shared.

Cultivating reading habits

Kanharith fondly recalled his youthful aspirations from the 1960s, expressing: “I dreamt of Cambodia flourishing with a multitude of books, their quality matching international standards.”

During the opening of the Big Bad Wolf Book exhibition in February, he said that books maintain their utility even in the electronic age. He underscored the importance of reading for education, pointing to its complementary role to knowledge gained from teachers at school.

He also shared his personal reading preferences, stating that while he enjoys a wide spectrum of literature, he avoids research books before bedtime.

Huot Socheata, founder of Avatar Publishing House, has made a distinctive mark in the Kingdom’s literary landscape, concentrating on the publication of Khmer-language novels. She delves into genres such as detective novels, science fiction, stories featuring animal characters and works portraying notable figures.

“One recent highlight is a visual novel on the ‘Golden Voice Queen Ros Serey Sothea’, featuring illustrations and 47 songs accessible via QR codes for an immersive reading and listening experience,” she shared with The Post while preparing the book.

Socheata acknowledges the profound influence of events like the book fair and National Reading Day in fostering a reading culture among the youth, highlighting how such occasions prompt reflection on the value of reading. However, she notes a drawback: the insufficient emphasis on creating high-quality books free from plagiarism.

Delving into the variations in reading habits, Socheata observes a discernable contrast between the habits of urban and rural readers.

Urban readers typically select books based on personal interests, while their rural counterparts often prioritise cost over quality. 

Socheata empathises with those seeking affordable books due to economic constraints and sees a general lack of habituation towards viewing books as essential items.

“Books play a vital role in education, serving as a guide to wisdom and contributing significantly to personal development,” she says.

Socheata recognises the impact of modern distractions like smartphones, televisions and tablets on cultivating reading habits. 

Family involvement

In today’s tech-centric era, opting for a book demands substantial self-motivation. To nurture a reading culture, the responsibility lies not just with educational institutions but also with families, starting from home, suggests Kok Ros.

“Children are more likely to adopt the habit of smartphone use unless they see their parents routinely reading,” he says.

He suggests showcasing books prominently in homes, even on stairways leading to bedrooms, to seamlessly integrate picking up a book into daily life. 

Ros says the habit of reading may not start with a specific desire but can evolve through consistent exposure.

“Consider picking up a book as you move in and out of the house each day,” he proposes.

Sharing from his own life, Ros mentions having around 2,000 books showcased throughout his home. He continually rotates them as he completes reading, creating an environment infused with literature that has positively influenced his children’s behaviour.

“My kids don’t gravitate towards their phones in their free time; instead, they ask for money to purchase books, especially during book fairs like these,” shares the father of two students in grades 8 and 11.

His personal testimony serves as a compelling testament to the influence of a home filled with books on young minds. 

Sothea Kanhana expresses a longing for more events like these, ones that not only exhibit books but also ignite the creation of original Cambodian content.

“It’s important to encourage our writers and publishers to craft stories born from our own experiences,” she reflects, her hands brushing over the spines of books rich with foreign tales. 

“While translations offer a window to the world, our own narratives are doorways to our soul,” she adds, advocating for a literary landscape that celebrates the local culture, history and imagination as much as it embraces international works. 

To tackle these challenges, Socheata envisions initiatives such as book clubs to share experiences and suggestions. These endeavours aspire to cultivate a stronger reading culture, closing academic gaps and nurturing a love for literature across all demographics in Cambodia.