Comparing Reading Cultures

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http://www.whytoread.com

Every three years or so the literary magazine Livres Hebdo  in France does an IPSOS survey of not just its readers, but the wider French reading public. The latest edition of this survey (April 2014) reveals that reading remains the second favourite leisure activity of the French (after ‘going out with friends’). 7 out of 10 French read at least one book a month and about half of them claim to read every day.

However, e-readers have not made that much of an inroad yet into French reading habits. Its popularity has grown only by 3% in the last three years.

And what are the favourite genres? Crime fiction (known as ‘polars’) tops the list, unsurprisingly, followed by spy thrillers, self-help books and historical essays/biographies.

So, are there any causes for concern? Well, the French admit that reading does seem to be a pastime associated with the middle classes, the better-educated and economically better off. This finding holds true in the survey of reading habits in England commissioned by Booktrust UK. In fact, there has been talk in Britain of a ‘class division’ in reading culture, with a clear link between deprivation and lack of reading enjoyment.

But perhaps the English are further down the road of using digital media to do their reading. In England 18% of people never read any physical books, while 71% never read any e-books. A quarter prefer internet and social media to books, nearly half prefer TV and DVDs to books. Only 28% of people in England (and I think it’s important to point out that this data is only for England, not for the UK as a whole) read books nearly every day, so considerably lower than in France. Fitting in nicely with the stereotype of ‘highbrow French’ reading books with boring covers and impenetrable titles?

DSCN6650Worldwide surveys of reading habits do tend to confirm somewhat national stereotypes. Self-help books are popular in the US, while in the UK there is a marked preference for celebrity autobiographies and TV chefs. The Germans, meanwhile, prefer travel/outdoor/environmental books, while the French, Romanians, Italians seem to prefer fiction.

But the most interesting result may be found in Spain. Once the nation that read fewer books than any other in Europe, since the recession hit the country so hard, it seems that books have become that affordable luxury and has led to 57% of the population reading regularly. It has also become one of the biggest book-producing nations, bucking all the publishing trends. And what do they prefer reading? A very interesting mix of Spanish-speaking writers (including South Americans) and translations from other languages.

And what are we to make of a 2011 study from the University of Gothenburg showing that increased use of computers in children’s homes in the US and Sweden have led to poorer reading skills as well as less pleasure derived from reading?

At the risk of preaching to the converted, I leave you with a conclusion which has been replicated in multiple studies around the world and which refers to leisure-time reading (of whatever description):

People who read books are significantly more likely to be happy and content with their life.

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9 thoughts on “Comparing Reading Cultures”

  1. Well, at least something good has come out of the Spanish recession. Very interesting post, Marina. Thank you. I think I read somewhere that the increased uptake of ereaders in the UK (and the US) has stuttered to a halt. Perhaps people have enough of technology at work.

  2. Marina Sofia – What an interesting post! Really fascinating findings here. I’ve always firmly believed that reading is an essential part of a full adult life. What you’re sharing here seems to show that, and it’s interesting to see how different cultures see reading and go about it.

  3. I go in spurts of watching movies, reading novels, and enjoying old TV shows on YouTube. The medium that relaxes and thrills me the most is reading. I can embrace the story at my own pace, “shut it off for later” easily, and I think the eye movement feels better than staring at a single screen. I agree, “People who read books are significantly more likely to be happy and content with their life.”

    And people who visit amperart.com, my ampersand project, are “more likely to appreciate the ampersand as fun & fabulous art.”

    Thanks for a good article. Tonight I’ll settle in with a book.

  4. I believe that those who read, and especially from a young age, acquire a trained imagination, that ‘educates’ the heart, makes for empathy and sensitivity. Rather as music does; not easily measured but easily recognised.

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