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Bringing People Back to the Book

Sonia Phalnikar, DW-WORLD.DEFebruary 14, 2005

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.

Chocolate, gummi bears or a short story?Image: presse

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 GermanyImage: DW

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

Chocolates, chips and novels

To counter the trend, the Berlin publishing company Sukultur hit upon the idea of putting literature within the economic and practical reach of people. It began placing small books costing €1 ($1.28) in candy vending machines at railway stations across Germany.

SuKuLTuR im Automaten
Vending machines with the small Sukultur novelsImage: presse

The tiny yellow books, reminiscent of the famous Reclam series featuring works by literary greats like Goethe, Kant and Shakespeare, compete with chocolate bars, chips and gummi bears. Unlike the school-book series the texts in the vending machines feature largely unknown, young authors and journalists who write offbeat short stories and poems no longer than 24 pages.

"We want to make good literature more accessible to the common man," said Frank Maleu, head of Sukultur. "We want to strip it of its hallowed status and give a person the feeling that it's just another consumer product like a chocolate bar."

Maleu's calculation that the concept would draw on a pool of untapped readers -- commuters and people on the move -- seems to be working. The company, which tries to publish four new books each month, has sold some 10,000 of them since they launched the idea at the end of 2003.

Frank Bartschel, a 36-year-old engineer who bought one of the books -- his second so far -- along with a candy bar at Berlin's main Zoo railway station, said it made perfect reading for his daily 40-minute commute to work.

"There are days when I don't want to read the latest unemployment figures in the paper and it's great instead to throw myself into a good story," he said. "And I'm always finished just before my stop arrives."

"Fun and original"

Good and cheap and even smaller seems to be Munich-based publishing company Blumenbar's mantra. Last year, the tiny company unveiled the so-called cigarette novel -- available for €2 at bookstores -- just months after the EU issued directives that cigarette packs must carry dire and prominent warnings such as "Smokers die earlier" or "Smoking leads to impotence."

The cigarette novelsImage: Blumenbar Verlag

The concept involves very short stories printed on two sides of a tiny cardboard cover that can be slipped over a cigarette packet and cover up the health warnings. The publishing company has recruited famous names like "Russian Disco" author Vladimir Kaminer and filmmaker Doris Dörrie to write the stories.

"It's not a statement about smoking but rather against an aesthetically repulsive health warning in typical governmental fashion," said Wolfgang Farkas, head of Blumenbar. "We thought the idea was fun and original and provided ordinary people with a good, cheap read."

Platform for budding authors

There's also a positive fallout to the unconventional initiatives to popularize literature: It allows a much-needed platform for young, budding writers and playwrights to get their works across to a larger audience. Blumenbar, for instance, last year held a competition for young authors to write their cigarette novels in the future. Some 700 people entered.

Frimmer of the "door speakers" project said some of their authors were first timers, too.

"The anonymity works perfectly because the concept affords them a kind of protection, " she said.