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Shawn Lei

Are the Chinese Also ‘Amusing Themselves to Death’?

(via Flickr/randomix)
(via Flickr/randomix)

Has the onset of the Age of Social Media transformed the Chinese people’s reading habits? Can readers still savor a multi-tome novel after they spend all day consuming bite-sized 140-character tweets?

A publishing house in Guangxi province conducted an online survey on the “Top Ten Impossible to Finish Books.” The results show that works of classic literature, both Chinese and foreign, are causing headaches for Chinese readers. Dream of the Red Chamber, a novel with 120 chapters written in the mid-1700’s, tops the list. The dubious honor is also shared by foreign-language titles such as Ulysses and One Hundred Years of Solitude.  Although the survey only sampled 3,000 readers, it may reveal the tip of the iceberg of how dramatically reading habits have been transformed in the Internet age.

List of the “Top Ten Impossible to Finish Books”

  1. Dream of the Red Chamber
  2. One Hundred Years of Solitude
  3. Romance of the Three Kingdoms
  4. In Search of Lost Time
  5. Walden
  6. Water Margin
  7. The Unbearable Lightness of Being
  8. Journey to the West
  9. How the Steel was Tempered
  10. Ulysses

The survey also investigates some of the reasons proffered for these books’ poor track record among modern readers. Some blame the large number of classical Chinese poems in the Dream of the Red Chamber. Others claim that the names of the characters in One Hundred Years of Solitude are too hard to remember, even if they had managed to crack open the first few chapters. How did Ulysses offend? Too many pages.

Sina Weibo user @明天会迷路 tweeted, “I decided to take one semester and one summer’s vacation to get through One Hundred Years of Solitude. It is a good book, but the characters’ names and the plot are hard to follow. Fortunately, the depictions of sex are really fantastic.” User @奇奇猴儿 posted: “Indeed, I couldn’t finish any of the 10 books on the list. Too many characters. Names are hard to remember. The content is too abstract. The cultural gap is too great! They are so thick that they can be used as murder weapons.”

According to a government report, China has about 560 million Internet users, and on average they spend 2.3 hours on the Internet every day. The “infiltration” of the Internet into their daily lives has caused an information explosion. People access reading materials on computers, mobile phones and tablets, and get information on apps and social media platforms such as Weibo, QQ, and WeChat, so much so that their daily routines are cut into tiny pieces — with a Weibo tweet here, a WeChat photo upload there, and perhaps a QQ message in the middle. Reports of checking Weibo in the restroom, refreshing WeChat status at 2 a.m., or chatting on QQ during working hours are all too common.

Even if this generation of Chinese readers have the inclination to sit down with one of the classics, they might have trouble mustering a long enough attention span to flip through a few hundred pages of solid text.

In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, American sociology professor Neil Postman wrote about America in the late half of the 20th Century, noting that as television took the place of print media, people preferred to be entertained passively by TV programs and read less. China’s younger generation may be going through something similar.

However, if it is any solace to literature-lovers, online and offline bookstores continue to thrive in China, and Amazon just introduced its latest e-book reader, the Kindle Paperwhite, to the Chinese market. Perhaps it is a sign that all is not lost.

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Shawn Lei

Shawn Lei spent two years as a fixer for Dan Washburn, managing editor of Asia Society Online, and has interned for the New York Times Shanghai office. He is now a reporter for a broadcasting company.
  • Paul Schoe

    I don’t think all is lost. I am (was?) a fervent promotor of books. Physical books, that you can hold, smell, make dirty. I am proud of my library with thousands of books. And yet … since a couple of months I have a tablet. And although I still prefer the physical books, I love it that I have dozens of books in my tablet and access to dozens of magazines. I continuously have a couple of books open, ready to read at the page where I last closed them. At any location: at home, while traveling, when being abroad. And bigger books, simply take more time to go through, but at least I don’t put them aside anymore. They remain still ready to continue where I left them last.

    I am afraid that soon I will lose my library and have it replaced by a super tablet with hundreds(thouands?) of books. I will have lost my library (sniff, cry) but my amount of reading will have increased. It is easy to buy books online and have them at your fingertips in minutes. I miss my physical books, but apparently convenience trumps my traditional preference. And, as mentioned, I read more then before.