“To the best of my knowledge, the number of readers who take a keen interest in classic novels is few,” said U Myo Aung, owner of Green Book Store, which sells classic Western literature amongst its diverse stock.
“In the past, classic novels were available for loan from bookshops in Yangon and most readers enjoyed them but the people who liked to read them are getting old, so little by little the readers are declining,” he added.
Most readers these days are English language students looking to brush up on their classics and learn the nuances of a more formal style of writing. Still, most classic novels and plays remain on the shelves, hapless, waiting for someone to take an interest.
“I sell the books to English students who want to improve their language and who show an interest in novels because classic plays or novels are set texts for students,” said U Myo Aung.
Nonetheless, bookish cliques exist, including readers dedicated to works by James Joyce and Dickens.
“In Yangon, there is a group of readers who are fond of collecting Charles Dickens’ novels wherever and whenever they are printed,” he said.
For those keen to advance their English or who simply enjoy collecting, a bookshop acts as a repository for the collections.
Famous writers and translators such as Nat Nwe and Maung Tun Thu translate the more popular classic novels into Myanmar, creating a demand from people who having read the translation, want to then enjoy the original.
“After publishing novels such as The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, which were translated by Nat Nwe into Myanmar, the English language version was also sold… The books were so good they caught people’s attention and inspired readers to read the original,” said U Myo Aung.
Although classic novels have risen in cost slightly, they remain inexpensive
“But when novels are translated into Myanmar and then made into popular movies such as Twilight, demand from young local readers is high. Although the books are expensive, they can afford them,” said Ma Min Min Maung, an employee of Innwa bookshop.
Overall though, U Khin Maung Sein of Zaw bookshop believes the popularity of classic novels is in decline.
“There is not much of a market for classic literature books. Very few avid readers now take an interest in classics of Western literature; books by Albert Camus, James Joyce and John-Paul Sartre, which were snapped up within three days of going on sale a decade ago. These days even renowned books such as Outsider by Albert Camus have not sold at all this year,” he said.
Myanmar readers may struggle with such books, which are difficult for native speakers to understand. However, in the absence of comprehension readers can take refuge in collecting.
“I asked a young man who often visits my bookshop why he bought such deep books, he replied honestly that he only collected the books and didn’t understand them,” said U Khin Maung Sein.
The internet has also had an affect on the classic book market with some readers searching for the information they want from a book online, rather than pay for expensive copies.
Nonetheless, U Khin Maung Sein believes there will always be a market for classic books. Even if people don’t want to read them, vanity will keep the custom flowing.
“Some people like to impress others on the street by walking along holding classic novels while others pretend to read them on the bus,” he said.
In Yangon, three bookshops currently import and sell English language books. They are Innwa bookshop at 232 Sule Pagoda Road, Myanmar Book Centre at the YMCA building on Thein Phyu Road and Green Bookstore at 55 Baho Road.