“The end of book reading”… is not the end of the world

Some weeks ago during an evening with writers from Dohuk, an important and quite liberal city in the north of Iraqi Kurdistan,  it was claimed that the Kurdish nation doesn’t read anymore. Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party had effectively destroyed any wish in people’s hearts to read, the writers said, by imposing censorship on interesting books and forcing people to read uninteresting ones, full of lies and other forms of  dishonesty. This  heritage explained, so the writers said, why so few Kurds were reading their books. The writers union was publishing three books per month and the sales figures of every book the bookshops in Kurdistan sold averaged some five hundred copies. And, of course, “nobody was adressing this crisis” and there was a need to rebuild, not only highways and oil refineries, but also the spirit of the Kurdish human being.

I want to disagree here with this analysis and also with the rebuilding solution. I want to argue that there are many reasons why people don’t read (certain) books and many ways to make them love reading books again.

I do this however from a privileged background.

First I have to confess that by the beginning of the eighties, I was hired for a few months by the Dutch Ministry of Culture, to write a report about what other countries were doing about ‘the crisis of reading’. The crisis in reading was raging in many other democracies such as Germany and Britain.

Actually, we have to be more precise: the crisis was not about reading in general but about the crisis in book reading. At that time, the crisis in reading newspapers, defined by plummeting sales of newspapers, was already fully underway in the United States, but it still had to hit Europe, while another crisis, of school children refusing to learn how to read and write, was a recognized crisis in America – that never reached Europe. After six years of teaching, terrifying numbers of American kids were leaving their primary schools as illiterates. This never happened in European countries (at that time).

This short introduction to a crisis in America and Europe should teach us a first lesson: if there is a crisis in reading books, people might continue to read other things. So, not the reading is the problem, but the books are the problem. Look to the internet: apart from Youtube, chatting blabla on Facebook or Twitter and Google Images, what is not about reading on internet? Can anyone enjoy even Youtube without knowing how to spell names, locations or headline words?

In the 1980’s, the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim did research in America about the books that were used in schools. It turned out that the interesting but old-fashioned fairy tales and adventure books for children had been gradually replaced by  boring books.

In the eighties there were some six big publishers left in the USA who produced the bulk of the schoolbooks. Over the years  there had been so many action committees, religious movements, political parties and special interest groups objecting against certain contents of school books, that they became devoid of  meaning and anything else that might lead to a boycot of books. I’ll give an example: there was a school book telling the story of two children who were given a cat. Then one day they came home with a balloon and the cat jumped on the balloon, damaging it. “Such a story cannot be allowed,” an animal protection society said, “because it will make children hate cats.” Other groups had objected to the “cruelty” in fairy tales, to the fact that families in school books were praying or the crime that drawings in school books showed a typical middle class family and not working class parents with kids.

Etcetera, etcetera. The publishers, having a sort of monopoly, could have ignored all these criticisms – but not the local education inspectors who are elected every year in the USA. They listened to their voters and cancelled criticised books from their lists to ensure they would be re-elected.

Public libraries

Many times there is nothing wrong with the books themselves but the problem is their availability. Where do you find the books you want to read? Britain was one of the first countries in the world to establish a nation-wide system of excellent public libraries.

When I was doing research in Germany, the manager of the recently established German Reading Association explained to me another way of getting people to read. They had asked secondary school children why they didn’t use the school library. The children said the books were old. They found none of the  books the television and youth magazines were talking about.

The association then introduced a kind of big box with the newest books for school children. Every two months the boxes would be switched from one school to another. After having circulated for one year or so, a new series of boxes was offered to the schools. This intiative was an overwhelming success.

Death of the canon

This German solution showed that school children are not so  interested in the so-called “canon”. In the 19th century, the peak time for bourgeois and nationalist culture in Germany, it was widely believed that every school child had to read certain “classics” of European and German culture. This was “the literary canon” and there were lists of such obligatory books and schools bought them to ensure that every child would become part of the German civilized readers club. This phenomenon existed in many nationalist states: every Spanish child in the time of  Generalissimo Franco had to read “Don Quichote” by Cervantes, every British child Shakespeare, every French child “Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo and every Italian “The Betrothed “ of Alessandro Manzoni.

After the Second World War modern writers of the fifties were added to the canon. After that the spirit of establishing the canon mysteriously died. Attempts to revive it failed everywhere because of a lack of enthusiasm to decide what others have to read. Too few people felt authorized to do so.

Philosophical question

The discussion about the canon opens up a wider debate: how do we view our society in the 21st century? Do we look at it as a circle of  book readers? Do we define civilization only as the capacity to read and write or is this the most important capacity to tame the animal inside us whose lust for killing is so easily unleashed in dictatorships?

Peter Sloterdijk, the iconoclast German philosopher, has written a sharp analysis of the problem, without having any solution. He concludes that “the art to write books for a nation of friends has become insufficient to forge a communicative bond between the inhabitants of a modern mass society.” The arrival of radio, television and the internet “has put the coexistence of people on a new base. Modern mass societies can produce their political and cultural synthesis only marginally through literary media. In no sense this means the end of literature but its days as an overvalued pillar of national beliefs are over. New media in the field of political and cultural telecommunication have taken over the lead. The illusion that we can organize big political and economic  structures on the model of a literary club, have definitely become history.”

Money problem

Another problem is money for books. Most people don’t have enough money to buy the books they like. Public libraries are only one solution. Publishers have reacted to the lack of money of readers by producing books as pockets, which nowadays on average cost less than one dollar to print. There are machines now that can print and finish 50,000 pocket books in one hour. Other publishers have printed complete books as thick, small newspapers. Others again have produced pocket books with exactly the same font, cover design and page layout, which reduced the cost of design. Then came the computer revolution, with authors delivering their books on a floppy, as a digital file, almost ready to print. This took away the cost of typesetting – in the past the biggest cost for a publisher. Pockets became so cheap that it became almost unattractive to publish or to sell them, the same way cheap medicines are unattractive for the pharmaceutical industry to produce. So, many books are now printed as  paperbacks, for which a publisher can ask at least five times the price of a pocket.

Readers also have found solutions. In many countries there are book exchanges: readers take their old books to a kind of shop where they can exchange them, paying 150 dinar (less than 0,1 US $) or so to the man or woman of the shop for every exchanged book. Simply, many people don’t care to keep all the books they have read or they want to get rid of the ones they don’t like.

Publishers problem

One reason many books don’t sell more than 500 or 1000 copies on a population of several millions is simply the incertainty that haunts publishers. You cannot print five thousand and then throw away three thousand because they didn’t sell. So, authors and publishers have found the following solution: the book club.

A reader becomes a member of the book club and promises to buy every month a book, for one year. Sometimes this is a book decided by the book club, sometimes the readers can choose from a limited number of books. In the first case, the publishing house knows exacty beforehand how many books it will sell at a minimum. Book clubs, some of them established by writers themselves, have been such a smashing success in many countries that now specialist book clubs exist, for example for religious books or books written by women.

Baath party heritage

Once, an official in the Dutch Ministry of Culture said: “I wished we could still prohibit books. To censor a book is the best way to sell it. Everyone wants to know what the government doesn’t like him to know.”  The German nazis didn’t prohibit all unwanted books but inside the public librairies they put some of them in a special place called “The Poison Shelves”. Of course this was the best way to attract the attention of certain people to good books.

I don’t want to make fun of censorship in Iraq because, in the end, book sellers in Mutanebbi Street and others were risking their lives to smuggle prohibited books to Iraq.

But, in a way, the problem is not censorship itself but it’s effects, especially if it lasts thirty years or so. Huge numbers of people haven’t seen for ages books they like, never heard about them. After liberation it takes people years to discover which writer has the ability to speak to them like a good friend.

Many first rate writers leave a country under dictatorship and then don’t come back – which means that even after liberation readers can never meet them during festivals or conferences, hear them on radio programs, see them on television. Germany needed some twenty years to grow a new generation of literary writers that appealed to the new generation grown up after the war. Somehow writers in exile at a certain point stop to attract large audiences in their fatherland because they are not connected with daily life in their countries of origin.

The absence of books and writers for decades can only be partly countered by publishing many books and the usual contacts with readers. Much more is necessary and it is a long list. More advertising for new books is needed. More television programs about books are needed that are visually appealing, showing more  than a talking writer in front of his personal library or strolling along a beach. More literary prizes need to be given away for the aim of selling more books, providing a writer with money for six or twelve months of living and involving the readers as popular juries.

Newspapers need more book reviews and more ways of introducing books. Literary festivals need to be offered regularly also in small towns. Many governments now have a kind of employment program for literary writers to visit schools and sit down two hours with the kids. An agency handles all the organization, paperwork and payment of the writers and schools just need to make a phone call.

Children books that are supposed to give kids a first taste of book reading, need truly artistic drawings, not illustrations done by amateurs. Publishers need to spend more money on artwork for their books. Parents need to read stories to their children and relatives need to give books as presents to children.

In other words: not only the government but many segments of society need to make an effort. And when they make this effort, they need to do this for the right reasons (in the first place to show others  the pleasures of book reading) and not to promote the profits of publishers, the vanity of writers, nationalist ideology, limited views on culture and tradition. In the end, a person can only read, truly read, for him- or herself, not for others. Reading is recreating what someone else thinks and if the thoughts of another person don’t interest you one bit, then reading stops being reading.

“Free” market

However, whatever happens, it remains an illusion that the majority of writers, literary and other, could really live from their books. In all countries this is only true for a minority of authors and the rest must have a working partner with a good salary or another job on the side.  Some states have been providing jobs to their writers, or grants for one or two years. Others don’t ask income tax from authors or offer a small amount for every book that a reader borrows from a public library.

Liberal societies clearly want  to keep some control mechanism exercised by the free market, to see which books and writers people like and to prevent a subsidized cast of bad authors coming into existence.

The free market however is an unfair system because the market is not really free but dominated by those made famous by the media, wealthy publishers, groupings of writers and journalists who help each other, prejudiced prize juries, the fashions of the day, and book reviewers with only superficial, commercial tastes.

So, the market cannot “decide” who really is a great, nice, brilliant or innovative writer. That is why some publishers produce literary magazines, not to make a profit, but to discover literary talent on time. After a first reasonably succesful book they might support a writer for years until the first big breakthrough.

In the free market some authors manage to find an international audience, thanks to the efforts of international literary agents who believe by them and who introduce them in international book fairs.


The miracle is that some authors, ignored or despised by the media, nevertheless make it to the bestseller lists. In my country this was the case  for example with books written by the gifted mother of a drug addict. Time and again those who think they have the power in culture, discover that people are reading things they never heard of. “Underground” cultures exist everywhere, for good and bad books. So, official statistics never tell the whole story.

But there is another miracle going on, as a result of economic changes, which improves the chances of decent survival for literary writers and other authors. The school system, where writers were finding side jobs as teachers, is now flanked by a growing industry of courses, workshops and seminars where writers can cut out a place for themselves. The globalization of the world’s economy has created thousands of well-paid jobs for translators, while in the past the translators’s existence was just as fragile as the one of writer.

People might have moved more to radio, cinema and television but these still need lots of good writing: scenarios, dialogues, comments for documentary films, news texts. The internet might have diminished the reading of newspapers and magazines, but it creates tons of reading materials. Authors have taken up the struggle with powerful publishers and media tycoons everywhere to get their fare share of the profits made in all media.

Books and other media in Kurdistan might be still far away of being a profitable business but instead of just blaming the past, the Kurds could try many ways of improving the situation now and set the tone for the future. That the book-reading spirit of the people was destroyed by one government doesn’t mean it can be rebuilt by another government  alone. Such rebuilding needs everyone’s genius and input. If “all revolutions start with complaining” let’s complain, but also move to the next stage.


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