Comparing Reading Cultures

www.whytoread.com
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.

Friday Fun: Time for Some Chateaux Again!

I know you’ve all missed my ever-so-useful posts about acquiring the chateau of your dreams in France or thereabouts. Fear not: I’ve continued avidly collecting information and pictures (my future as an estate agent seems secure!).

Chateau in Figeac, right about in the middle of France.
Chateau in Figeac, right about in the middle of nowhere. Sorry, I mean France.
Same property as above. I'd be content with this little outhouse!
Same property as above. I’d be content with this little outhouse!
chateauRochechouart
Chateau in Rochechouart, Limousin, near a famous crater. No, it won’t fall in!
Inside the Rochechouart castle, you can find all the medieval comforts you might expect...
Inside the Rochechouart castle, you can find all the medieval comforts you might expect…
... and a few you might not. I would die for that library!
… and a few modern ones you might not. I would die for that library!
Price available on request – need not apply if you have less than 21 million euros at your disposal!

And, finally, one that is not for sale. It’s been converted into a hotel and restaurant, it’s not that far away from where I currently live… so I still dream of having a civilised supper with friends on the terrace at some point…

Chateau de Divonne.
Chateau de Divonne, divonnelesbains.com
Credits for all of the pictures above, excepting Divonne, is from the property website http://www.avendrelouer.fr.

 

 

Travel Poetry: The Secret Gardens of Vaulx

20140830_154618An assault on the senses: so much to catch the eye.

We wander in a daze, through minarets of clay,

alabaster arches of thousand one more dreams.

We get lost in mazes, guided only by

children’s laughter and gasps of enchantment.

Round-mopped flowerheads beckon us to stroke them.

Birdsong fills the cool shade under the chestnut tree.

Water in every form bustles, trickles, dribbles, laps –

Each fountain a family member,

each square of cement path a pebble-enscribed love-letter.

20140830_154332It shouldn’t work: it’s madness,

disparate elements reclaimed from Morocco, Java, Spain,

brought together with nothing but bare hands and humour.

It started out as child’s play and became a family’s history,

hands in soil for decades, shared sighs, always a surprise,

glimmer of a pool around the corner, where

copper filigree meets bulbous earthen pumpkins.

Day after day they built one more terrace,

seeded another flowerbed,

unhurried, unforced,

mosaics of azure tinged with moss, gold shredded with scarlet.

 

20140830_154442We walked in smarting with petty quarrels.

Thirst quenched, a little silenced,

we leave here hand in hand.

 

These magnificent gardens that I discovered earlier this year  just outside Annecy in France – a source of inspiration and delight. For Gabriella’s brilliant initial hosting prompt about travel writing over at dVerse Poets Pub.

Friday Fun: Barn Conversions

So many of you liked the barn conversion picture I posted last Friday that I thought I would go out and take pictures of more barns in the area for you. They are a bit different from barns in the UK or US: there’s a lot more stone involved, for one.

This is usually the starting point - just four walls crumbling.
This is usually the starting point – just four walls crumbling.
This is your basic conversion: doors and windows all kept to the original size.
This is your basic conversion: doors and windows all kept to the original size.
This is the more ambitious and modern version.
This is the more ambitious and modern version.
This is the version which combines tradition and modernity.
This is the version which combines tradition and modernity.
And this is the farmhouse wing right next to the barn above. Pure charm and my ideal living space!
And this is the farmhouse wing right next to the barn above. Pure charm and my ideal living space!

One little confession: When I first moved to this area, I dreamt of owning a chateau with a vineyard on the hills of La Cote, overlooking Lake Geneva. With this view.

From The Guardian.
From The Guardian.

By now I would be quite happy with a converted barn in my area, slightly further away from the lake and without a vineyard (but maybe an orchard?).

The truth of course is that I will never own any property in this area, as the prices are exorbitant. But hey, we can always dream a little…

Friday Fun: A Walk in the French/Swiss Countryside

I live in a rural area on the Franco-Swiss border, but the proximity to Geneva makes it a popular place to live, so there are always building works going on. Given the nice weather today (we have not been blessed with much sunshine this summer), I thought I’d take a walk through some traditional local villages. And document it with pictures, before they completely disappear under the weight of new blocks of flats.

Today’s walk started and ended in Grilly, a village bearing the name of a medieval lord de Grailly, who owned approximately a thousand hectares of land straddling the Versoix river (which nowadays forms the border between France and Switzerland) and controlled the trade route between Lake Geneva and the Jura mountains.

20140822_140506
Sunflowers with the Jura mountains in the background

 

If you turn to face the other way, you get this view over the Alps.
If you turn to face the other way, you get this view over the Alps.
Border stone: now marking the border between the cantons of Geneva and Vaud. Formerly marking the border between France and Switzerland (dates from 1808)
Border stone: now marking the border between the cantons of Geneva and Vaud. Formerly marking the border between France and Switzerland (dates from 1808)
Bridge of Grilly over the river Versoix, marking the Swiss-French border. Madame de Stael fled on this path from France to her family property in Coppet in 1792.
Bridge of Grilly over the river Versoix, marking the Swiss-French border. Madame de Stael fled on this path – formerly the trade route between the lake and the mountains – from France to her family property in Coppet in 1792.
Farmhouse in Chavanne des Bois, Switzerland.
Farmhouse in Chavanne des Bois, Switzerland.
Chateau de Chavanne - in fact, a large manor house with adjacent farms. I bought a bag of plums from the farm shop here to eat along the way.
Chateau de Chavanne – in fact, a large manor house with adjacent farms. I bought a bag of plums from the farm shop here to eat along the way.
Opposite this charming old house and garden in Sauverny (France)...
Opposite this charming old house and garden in Sauverny (France)…
...you'll find the inevitable new development.
…you’ll find the inevitable new development.
The path from the mill in Sauverny to the village of Grilly, bordered by oak trees and corn.
The path from the mill in Sauverny to the village of Grilly, bordered by oak trees and corn.
Village houses in Grilly, France.
Village houses in Grilly, France.
A refurbished barn in Grilly. What do you think: very covetable or a modernisation too far?
A refurbished barn in Grilly. What do you think: very covetable or a modernisation too far?

 

No Pictures, But Plenty of Books…

I’m back from the holidays and I haven’t got the pictures to prove it. Suffice it to say that Crete was beautiful, hot but not unbearably so, full of history as well as good food and long beaches… and that it was lovely to spend time with some of my dearest friends. Yet, despite all these distractions, I also managed to get quite a bit of reading done. All with a holiday theme (or, at the very least, a beautiful location suitable for holidays).

  1. ZouroudiAnne Zouroudi: The Bull of Mithros – well, how could you go to Greece and not opt for the mouth-watering, sensuous descriptions of Greek landscape, food and way of life… oh, and crime too?
  2. Paul Johnston: The Black Life – also a Greek setting, but much more sombre subject, dealing with the deportation of Jews from Thessaloniki and its present-day consequences
  3. Takagi Akimitsu: The Tattoo Murder Case – intriguing glimpse of life in post-war Japan in the floating world of kinky-ness, tattoo artists and dubious bars
  4. Murakami Haruki: Kafka on the Shore – reread this novel of magical realism and permanent search set in Shikoku, Japan - this time in translation, hence with a lot more comprehension
  5. Melanie Jones: L’Amour Actually – fun, farcical but not terribly realistic portrayal of the transformation of a Louboutin-touting London gal into a French farming enthusiast
  6. EmeraldCathy Ace: The Corpse with the Emerald Thumb – corruption, death and intrigue in Mexico, with a lesson in tequila-making for an engaging, feisty middle-aged heroine
  7. Nicola Upson: Fear in the Sunlight – another installment in the murder mystery series featuring Josephine Tey, this one is set in the purpose-built fake village of Portmeirion in Wales and also features Alfred Hitchcock – yet it’s much more thoughtful and darker than it sounds
  8. Marissa Stapley: Mating for Life – a mother and her three daughters struggle with love, secrets, family and fidelity in this charming but not quite substantial enough tale set largely in the family vacation home on an unspecified lake in the United States.
  9. KellaGraeme Kent: Devil-Devil – the first novel I’ve ever read set in the Solomon Islands just before independence, this is not just an interesting crime story, but also a lesson in anthropology, featuring the delightfully unlikely detecting duo of Kella, a native policeman with tribal peacemaking responsibilities and Sister Conchita, a Catholic nun with a penchant for breaking the rules.

 

Recent Reading: Comfort Fiction

I’ve felt the need for some comfort reading lately. I’d embarked on rather more difficult reads (in translation), but found myself floundering, struggling to finish them. Personal circumstances made it hard for me to concentrate, so I turned to what I correctly perceived to be comfortable offerings from women writers.

Far be it from me to suggest that women’s fiction is comfort fiction. Besides, I’ve never quite understood what ‘women’s fiction’ means. Written by women? For women? Discussing women’s topics such as menstruation, childbirth and abortions? Because all of the other subjects in the world belong to both genders and are of general human value and interest.

Nor is my comfort fiction the light-hearted banter of Wooster and Jeeves, although I have been known to turn to Enid Blyton and other childhood favourites when I have a bad migraine.

No, what I mean by comfort fiction is familiar tropes, fiction from a culture where I know the rules. Fiction which does not surprise or challenge me excessively, which does not make me work hard. If novels were food, this kind of fiction overall would be a ham-and-cheese sandwich: nourishing, enjoyable and, above all, safe. [For individual food comparisons, see below.] These are not books that will haunt me and get me thinking long after I’ve finished them. They are perfect holiday fodder (set in England, Greece, France): books to enjoy, whizz through quickly and then pass on to others.

HerHarriet Lane: Her

This book is like a bag of crisps: easy to read/eat, pleasant taste in your mouth and you can’t stop until you finish the packet. Hugely relatable account of motherhood overwhelm, mourning a promising career and the small delights but also pressures of babies and toddlers… So yes, it is the account of privileged, well-educated, Guardian-reading middle classes (and I might as well stand tall and proud and acknowledge myself to be one of them… most of the time). Emma aspires to something more than her mundane domestic tangles and is starting to question if this is all there is to life. She is a little envious of the self-contained, wealthy, aspirational lifestyle that her new friend Nina seems to offer. Nina has suddenly materialised on her doorstep, ever watchful, ever helpful, unaccountably attracted to the boring company which Emma fears she is providing. Of course, we as readers know more, because we get to see the story from the two different points of view. Clever device, but it does get a bit repetitive: one or two instance of it would have been enough to give us that sense of ominous, impending doom. The devil (or horror) is in the detail here: the quiet chill, the small-scale escalation of fears. Cleverly done, if somewhat implausible.

LongFallJulia Crouch: The Long Fall

A great description of the hedonism of backpacking holidays back in 1980, when Greek island hopping still seemed quite adventurous. The author is good at capturing that sense of vulnerability, loneliness and need for camaraderie that we all have in youth, especially single young women travellers, and she also shows how easily things can spin out of control. The present-day Kate, with her glossy lifestyle and attempt to create and maintain the illusion of perfection, was rather more irritating. I am not sure what the anorexia added to the story, other than perhaps blocking her ability to think straight. The rapid switches between time frames are of course a well-known device to get you to turn the pages more and more quickly, to find out what happened and how they are going to deal with the outfall. The ending did feel a little contrived and predictable, but it was well-paced enough to keep me engaged till the end, even if not entirely satisfied. A meat and potato sort of dish, with some of the spices getting lost in the cooking.

Courtney Maum: I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You

HavingFunRichard is a former avant-garde artist who is starting to taste commercial success in Paris but suspects he may have sold out. His French wife Anne-Laure is gorgeous, a successful lawyer, impeccably put-together and keeps a spotless house/cooks divinely. Yet he has been cheating on her with an American journalist, who has now left him to get married. His wife finds out about the affair and all hell breaks loose. Richard mopes and whines for most of the book, but finally sees the error of his ways and, after some self-flagellation and heart-to-heart talks with his parents and remembrance of things past, finds his way back to the marital berth. (That’s not a spoiler, surely – it is evident from the outset what the outcome will be: this is ‘Notting Hill’ or some other British rom-com film territory, after all.)

The descriptions of the boredom and routine that a marriage can fall into are cleverly done, the feeling of being brother and sister, the pit crew mentality of tending to your child: these are all well enough done. But, for heaven’s sake, they’ve only been married for seven years and have just the one child: when did that suffocating routine have time to set in? And why does Anne-Laure have to be quite so perfect to make her husband appreciate her again? She should be angry and slobbish, take to drink and sluttish housekeeping, become irrational and demanding instead of incredibly mature and wise. That would be a proper test of commitment! But you can see that this book was written by a woman and that it therefore contains a huge amount of wish-fulfillment: the erring husband who has to be exhaustively humiliated and come crawling back to his wife begging for forgiveness and attempting many pathetic but well-meant romantic gestures.

There are quite a few enjoyable things about this book which elevate it above run-of-the-mill soap opera type fiction. There are genuinely funny moments, such as the couple to whom Richard sells a painting of real sentimental value, or when his attempt to woo back his wife by drawing graffiti on the pavement outside their house results in his arrest. I enjoyed the often astute observations about the differences between American and French customs, families and lifestyles, even though it sometimes feels like they are coming straight from a magazine article.

In America, wealth is dedicated to elevating the individual experience. If you’re a spoiled child, you get a car, or a horse. You go to summer camps that cost as much as college. And everything is monogrammed, personalized, and stamped, to make it that much easier for other people to recognize your net worth. In France, great wealth is spent within the family, on thefamily. It’s not shown off, but rather spread about to make the lucky feel comfortable and safe. The French bourgeois don’t pine for yachts or garages with multiple cars. They don’t build homes with bowling alleys or spend their weekends trying to meet the quarterly food and beverage limit at their country clubs: they put their savings into a vacation home that all their family can enjoy, and usually it’s in France. They buy nice food, they serve nice wine, and they wear the same cashmere sweaters over and over for years.

Overall, I cannot help feeling that the moments of insight have been toned down, the sharp edges carefully rounded to make this book more appealing to a mass audience. Charming confectionery, but I would have preferred something a little more truthful and substantial.