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Culture

Bringing People Back to the Book

With literature in vending machines, on cigarette packs and even broadcast over apartment intercoms, several initiatives are aiming to popularize the written word as Germans read fewer books, preferring TV instead.

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Chocolate, gummi bears or a short story?

A group of people on a street standing around the intercom of an apartment building might seem like nothing out of the ordinary. But, if they're all intently listening to a dramatic voice from the speaker reciting a love poem or raging about a political issue, then it's not your everyday occurrence.

The brainchild of a Berlin-based artist and literary group, which calls itself the "door speakers," the above scene has been played out all over the German capital since last summer. The concept involves the nine authors of the group sitting in an apartment and taking turns at reading their prepared texts into the intercom every time the buzzer rings. The authors and their audience outside never actually see each other.

The works, ranging from stories, plays, texts and poems, are always just a few minutes long. The author hangs up once he's finished. To hear more, all the listener on the street has to do is to push the buzzer again and another "door speaker" begins a recitation.

"Our main aim is to bring literature to the street," said Mia Frimmer, a group member who pens essays and plays. "It's about taking it away from high-brow readings and the mainstream book business and making it accessible and fun to the passer-by."

The readings are free and those interested learn about them from flyers on lampposts or by word of mouth.

"It's fun not to know who and how many people are down there listening," Frimmer said. "In a way it's a subversive way of presenting literature. It stimulates the imagination of the listener who's trying to picture the person behind the voice."

Germans turning their backs on books

The "door speaker" readings are just the latest in a slew of ingenious initiatives attempting to make the written word cool and cheap at a time when Germans are buying fewer books and spending even less time reading the ones they do get. At the same time, the amount of time spent in front of the television is on the increase.

Mann ließt Buch

A sight becoming rarer in Germany

Germany's book industry has recorded continually falling profits for the past few years. Part of the blame might be the sluggish economy, but statistics show that Germans are simply reading less. A recent study by the Reading Foundation together with the German Ministry for Education and Research found that only 6 percent of a representative cross-section of 2,530 Germans reached for a book every day and 45 percent said they hardly had anything to do with books.

At the same time television viewing has risen dramatically. In 2004, the average German spent three and a half hours daily in front of the telly -- a new record. The introduction of screens featuring events, advertisements and news flashes in subways in Berlin has also meant that commuters now increasingly stare at them rather than peruse the paper.

Continue reading to find out how literature is getting cheaper and cooler

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