Friday, August 29, 2014

Who is (mostly not) reading?

IN A WORLD OF READERS, being unable to read is a major handicap. To be literate, however, does not necessarily mean reading books. Once there were literacy campaigns to teach people how to read; now there are campaigns urging people to read books. Parents lament that their children never read books, but not that they rarely watch television, play video games or listen to pop music. Surveys quantifying the percentage of non-readers are noted with dismay by the reading classes.

Reading a book, almost any book, is regarded as ‘better’ than any other cultural activity. Two hundred years of technological revolution in culture has not substantially modified this basic belief. Illiteracy was a good reason for not reading. In the era of compulsory schooling, the non-reader still lurking among us is regarded as a collective failure.

Surveys indicating the percentage of non-readers give conflicting results – unsurprisingly, since different methodologies and definitions are used. An Italian survey in the 1980s revealed that 22 per cent of the population never read anything, not even newspapers. Perhaps this was an improvement, since in 1962 the proportion of Italian non-readers was 40 per cent – the same as in Hungary and Holland, countries with a huge production of books. In France, home of the intellectual, the percentage of non-readers was even higher: 53 per cent. This suggests a massive deterioration, since according to another survey in 1955 ‘only’ 38 per cent of the French had not read a book in the past year. Between 1989 and 1997 matters improved, at least in France: non-readers were now 25 per cent. There was, however, further bad news from Italy: in 1986 half of the adult population had not read a book in the preceding six months.5 The ISTAT (Italian state statistical office) figures for 1988 suggest that in reality the situation was even worse: 62 per cent had not read a book in the previous year, perhaps because nineteen million Italians live in towns without a bookshop. The problem is not confined to Italy. In 1980, the market analysis agency Euromonitor surveyed the European Community and found that 55 per cent ‘were not reading a book at the moment’. In July 2005 yet another Italian survey, this time commissioned by publishers, revealed that 54 per cent never read books, and that only 35 per cent had bought a book during the previous year. This represented an improvement since 2003.

The precise percentages are of limited interest. Those who read books are horrified to live in a country where 20, or 30, or 40 per cent of the population never read anything. Non-readers are themselves mortified. They know that to have books in the home is a mark of social status. When asked to explain themselves, they adopt a tone of contrition: they do not have time, they are too tired after a day’s work, they promise to catch up during the holidays. They regard books as a leisure activity. They are not wrong. If one, along with Roland Barthes, thinks that books can be entertaining, not reading them is a pity not because one fails to ennoble one’s soul or widen one’s horizons, but because one is missing out on pleasure. In an ideal world everyone should read books. Yet there is no obvious reason why reading a book (any book?) is better than watching television (any television programme?). What is wrong with never reading books? The much-touted contrast between watching television and reading is true only at the extreme of the spectrum: heavy television watchers do not read much, and those who read a lot do not watch much television.11 Perhaps those who read are depriving themselves of the pleasures of television.

The people who read the most are, unsurprisingly, the better educated. The wealthiest 20 per cent of the population read plenty of books, yet they also have the latest television gadgetry, DVDs, computers and internet access; they go to the cinema, the theatre and the opera more than the rest. Most of those who never read belong to the class of those who, throughout history, have never read anything: the poor. It is true that today books are cheap, and that there are plenty of public libraries. Being poor, however, is not just about not having enough cash: it can also lead to a lack of the predisposition, the will and the curiosity to widen one’s horizons. Not reading is to do with inequality and poverty. However, women, not the most privileged sector of society, read more than men. In France, government statistics for 2003 show that 38 per cent of men and ‘only’ 28 per cent of women had not read a book in the preceding twelve months (which, of course, does not tally with other sets of statistics from the same source – see above), while women also listened to classical music more frequently and went to the theatre, ballet, art galleries and museums more often. Among the young, that is those aged between fifteen and twenty-four, the gender gap was particularly impressive: 33 per cent of men were non-readers, but only 13 per cent of women. Compared to 1973, men read less and women read more, more than compensating for the drop in male readers. The percentage of ‘strong’ readers – those reading at least twenty-five books a year – had decreased since 1973, though far more among men than among women.

Among the university-educated there is a surprisingly high number who never read books. In Italy, among the non-readers, along with 91 per cent of farmers and 71 per cent of workers, are 23 per cent of university-educated people. Of course there is an increasing number of graduates, so it is not surprising that many of them do not read. One could look on the bright side and note the progress that has been made. Today reading is normal, and not reading abnormal. In the nineteenth century – or even the mid-twentieth – it was the reverse, as is still the case in many parts of the world. In the ‘advanced’ countries, more books are printed each year than there are people.
(Chart )

France, Germany, Great Britain and the USA did not return data, but everything indicates that they would be comfortably in the top league, though perhaps behind Belarus.
We do, however, have a fuller listing for book titles:

And elsewhere? As one would expect, small, poor countries don’t do well at all. And it is not just about books, it is about everything. Books are a sign of prosperity. Bookless countries have fewer televisions, radios and cinemas. The gap between Ghana (not one of the poorest countries in Africa) and Greece (not one of the richest countries in Europe) is stark: in 1995 Ghana had five telephone lines per thousand people (494 in Greece), published 0.1 book titles per 100,000 people (thirty-nine in Greece), sold eighteen copies of daily papers per thousand people (183 in Greece), had 231 radios and ninety-two televisions per thousand people (430 radios and 220 TVs in Greece).

African writers, in order to be read globally, have to write in the language of former colonial powers. Their own market is too small, and their books are unlikely to be translated. Besides, it is not easy to obtain literary success in Nigeria, with its four hundred dialects, or in Ghana, with a hundred dialects, or in Sierra Leone, which has, with a population of 5.7 million, about twenty languages and a literacy index of only 36 per cent. In global terms, the world of books is the world of the rich.

[Donald Sassoon's book excerpt]