Bookworms are rare in the land of Goethe and Schiller | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 15.10.2009
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Culture

Bookworms are rare in the land of Goethe and Schiller

Germans are known around the world for being cultured, but not everyone in the country is necessarily a reader. A quarter of the population never picks up a book.

Two people flipping through a book

Some never pick up a book; others fly through one a week

Book lovers feel absolutely at home in Frankfurt's Westend neighborhood. Among all the century-old buildings - cafes, flower shops and designer stores - visitors can also find find Authors' Bookstore. Established in 1979 by a group of writers, the shop has become an institution in a city famed for its huge international book fair.

"We have a wide selection of books, but we focus on what we call 'a good book' - of course, it's always debatable what a good book really is," store manager Barbara Determann mused.

"People have different opinions on that - and, a good book at three o'clock in the morning is entirely different from what I'd read at my desk at three o'clock in the afternoon. Either way, we always tell our customers that good books are appreciated in our shop."

But customers at the "Authors' Bookstore" do not necessarily reflect the population at large.

Reading habits vary largely

Two children reading

Kids who are read to often become readers later in life

Social scientists have been warning that younger generations are losing their interest in reading. A 2008 study commissioned by Stiftung Lesen, Germany's foundation for the promotion of reading, showed that around one quarter of literate Germans over the age of 14 never pick up a book.

At the other end of the scale, however, those same government statistics revealed that 36 percent of Germans read at least once a week, while three percent can be classified as real bookworms - tearing through an average of one book per week.

Stiftung Lesen's Christoph Schaefer said early childhood experiences play an important role.

"Children end up becoming readers primarily when they are read to. Do Germans read to their kids? Unfortunately not," he said. "Some 42 percent of parents with kids in the prime age for being read to - from babyhood to 10 years - do not do so, or only rarely."

Studies show that this number is also slowly, but surely, growing. The 2008 Stiftung Lesen study, for example, revealed that 45 percent of the 14-to-19-year-olds surveyed had never received a book as a gift during their childhoods.

Readers with refined tastes

The pages of a book

Many customers like book tips, store owners say

Still, in the Frankfurt bookshop, Determann said that those customers who do consider reading very important are demanding better material.

"The children's and youth literature section is the fastest-growing in our shop," she pointed out. "A lot of young families live in this part of town - upwardly mobile, ambitious people with kids. They like coming to our store because they're educated and want their kids to be too. They leave their kids here so that we can read to them and suggest books we think they'd like."

Each year, 90,000 new books flood the German market, but the media trend is definitely leaning towards computer-based, or Internet reading. Another 2008 study showed that 95 percent of boys between the ages of 12 and 19 prefer electronic media over books; the number for girls is only slightly less. But, the study also confirmed what people always say: the more parents read themselves, the more their children will.

As far as the market goes, customers prefer paperbacks over hardcovers, and thin books over thick ones. Also in great demand at the moment: non-fiction, specialized books and mysteries.

"Mysteries are always popular, but there's been a new trend: regional thrillers," said Schaefer. "Many readers have come to appreciate even little cities or towns as settings for crime stories - one can even say it's a stable trend on the market."

Independent stores offer individual service

Schaefer said books for "all ages" represent the second big trend - books that are supposedly for kids, but are also widely read by adults.

A huge stack of books

Non-fiction and specialized books are a big trend on the German market

"Harry Potter, for instance, opened up a whole range of possibilities," Schaefer said. "Although, if you think back to author Michael Ende, you realize J.K. Rowling was not the first to tap that market."

Big bookstore chains have taken over most of the smaller bookshops in Frankfurt. Determann said independent stores can only survive by offering a high standard of service.

"We like to recommend books - because the market is so massive and so hard to keep track of, and there is so much junk out there," she said.

"We work our way through the mountains of books and are then able to select what we think are the best - exciting books, contemporary ones, or even translations of older books that are being discussed again. We want to offer all that in our shop."

Over 20 percent of book purchases are now conducted online, and market analysts say that number will only increase. But, luckily for the Authors' Bookstore, there's also a growing group of die-hard buyers who want personal book recommendations from staff like Barbara Determann, who know their literary tastes.

Author: Kristine von Soden (als)
Editor: Kate Bowen

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