Despite the increasing use of advanced digital technology and the richness of information available on social media, including e-books, the popularity of printed books has not slowed down. 

The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport has striven to promote reading and is set to celebrate the 9th National Reading Day on March 11, an annual event commemorating the birthday of the late Supreme Patriarch Chuon Nath, a highly revered scholar of Khmer literature.

The assessment that the trend has remained strong was supported by observations from Sipar Cambodia, a book publishing organisation which encourages reading through initiatives like their mobile library, and the observations the group made at a recent book fair, which attracted more than 200,000 buyers, predominantly young people. 

Hong Serey Fong, a fourth-year student at the Department of Media and Communication (DMC) at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) said he chose to read books on his phone because they are free and downloadable from the internet, while printed books require purchase.

“When it comes to hobbies, I like to read both printed books and e-books. But now, in the digital age, most people read books on their mobile phones as PDFs or e-books because printed books are difficult to carry,” he explained.

“When I was in high school, I only read printed books. So I won’t give up on them. If possible, I would buy them, because they don’t strain the eyes like reading on a phone screen. The light from the screen is harmful to our eyes but it’s cheaper and easier to access,” he added.

Contrary to Serey Fong’s preference, Duong Mony, a fourth-year student at the University of Kratie, majoring in crop protection and harvesting technology, personally favours reading traditional books over digital versions.

He said reading print editions is easier due to the larger font size and the absence of harmful effects on his vision. 

He also finds reading print less monotonous than reading on a phone, noting jokingly that they can be read even without internet access.

“I prefer physical books to avoid exposure to radiation from devices. Reading is beneficial for gaining knowledge, learning new words and understanding the author’s presented arguments. It helps improve the quality of readers and is useful for people of all ages,” the 20-year-old said.

E-book rise and decline

Over the past decade, there has been a significant global increase in e-book reading, particularly in developed countries such as the US and Japan and those in Europe. 

Paper books have existed for thousands of years, but about ten years ago in Asia, particularly in less developed countries, the development of e-books was limited, with only Japan and South Korea advancing with any significance in the area. 

Recently, however, there has been a global decline in e-book reading.

In Europe, e-reading has fallen to between 10 and 20 per cent, while in the US it dropped from 60 per cent to around 30 to 40 per cent. 

According to Sipar president Hok Soth, Japan has experienced a similar decline.

A selection of tomes at the reading event, held in Phnom Penh last February.Heng Chivoan

“The development is slowing down because there’s a trend reverting back to paper. I haven’t conducted scientific research, but I find that reading long articles or important content in tangible form is more effective than on a phone. That’s why people are turning to print more than before,” Soth told The Post.

He believes that traditional paper books still play a vital role in education and information access, whether for learning, teaching or entertainment. 

He said this doesn’t mean that the role of e-books is diminishing; it indicates that while brief content can be read on a phone screen, detailed and lengthy articles are better suited to print.

The interest in book reading among Cambodian youth is evident, particularly at book fairs. In December 2023, a four-day book fair attracted hundreds of thousands of predominately young people who showed a preference for hardcopies.

“The books sold at the fair were paper books, not e-books. There are e-books available, but about 99 per cent of purchases were paper. [They] continue to be a solid source of knowledge and e-reading or e-books have not replaced the need for ink-and-paper,” Hoth said. 

“However, we can store many e-books on a phone; they are not heavy, don’t require much space and are useful. These two types of books are still competing, but reading physical books remains important for gaining a deeper understanding,” he added.

Soth also noted the potential harm of phone screens to eyesight, especially in children, some of whom already need to wear glasses. 

He said the light from daily mobile device usage, through gaming and watching videos, can be extremely damaging.

Reading influenced by age

Reading, despite the abundance of options available, is significantly influenced by age. 

Mao Samnang, a film and book writer and an official of the Khmer Writers Association (KWA) who has authored hundreds of books, noted that young people are the most avid readers of printed books, a change from a few years ago, even though smartphones now make accessing e-books easier. 

“Most of them are students, as seen at national book fairs. However, for middle-aged people, reading tends to decrease as they focus more on family and economic responsibilities,” she said.

“If it’s just about turning on the phone to read, then yes, it’s easy, but I’ve noticed that young people are reading [printed material] a lot. I say this based on the large turnout at book fairs,” she added.

Khuon Vicheka, spokesperson for the education ministry, emphasised the importance of reading in the development of human resources. 

She said this encompasses a balance of rehabilitation and soft skills, behavioural aspects, physical abilities, patriotic conscience and humanity.

On March 11, the ministry will celebrate the 9th National Reading Day, themed “Reading is the foundation of success in school – and in life”.

The government has designated the date – Venerable Chuon Nath’s birthday – to commemorate his contributions to Khmer literature and culture, especially his efforts to safeguard them during the country’s colonial period. 

“[Venerable Nath] tirelessly worked to protect Khmer literary and cultural heritage during French colonisation. National Reading Day is celebrated to encourage reading habits, foster a reading culture, enhance literacy skills and contribute to the preservation and strengthening of Khmer culture and civilisation,” she explained.