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The gift of words

Alexandra BelopolskyDecember 23, 2013

In the land of Goethe and Schiller, books - yes, even the paper kind - are still a favorite Christmas gift. But Germans' love of literature extends well beyond the holiday season.

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Image: Calado/Fotolia

"Books are the best present you can give," says Lars, a literature professor with long blond hair. His left arm is loaded with a stack of volumes; another book is in his right hand. In all the commotion and bustle around him, there's hardly room to breathe. Just navigating requires foresight and constant apologizes; standing still even more so.

We're in a local branch of one of Germany's biggest book retailers, Thalia, and Lars is not the only one with his hands full. The lines at the registers stretch across the entire store. Only the very brave have dared to shop today.

Every year from mid-November through Christmas, the bookstores in Germany are flooded with people stocking up on the gift of the written word for their loved ones - and for themselves.

"I can't speak to you, it's Christmas business time" is a typical response from the salespeople if you dare ask a question not directly related to purchasing a present. Books were among the most popular Christmas gifts in Germany in 2012, with the pre-Christmas period accounting for nearly a quarter of bookstores' annual revenues.

Literature groupies

In the land of Schiller and Goethe, it probably doesn't come as a surprise that Germans love to give books. But the passion for literature in this country is evident the rest of the year as well.

In any large German city, you're bound to find a literary event on any given week. In the largest cities, like Berlin and Cologne, they take place practically every day. Public readings and meetings with authors are as common as concerts, and just as popular.

One of the biggest literary events on Germany's cultural calendar, aside from the world-renowned Frankfurt and Leipzig book fairs, is the international lit.Cologne festival - 11 days with over 150 events for children and adults.

Highlights include readings by some of the most famous authors from Germany and around the world. Ticket sales begin as soon as the previous year's lit.Cologne has ended, and for a good reason - they tend to sell out quickly.

The next lit.Cologne runs from March 12-22 and will see big names like Simon Beckett, Cornelia Funke, Hakan Nesser, and Arundhati Roy.

E-book readers seen at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2013, Photo: Alexander Heimann, Copyright: Frankfurter Buchmesse
Have e-book sales plateaued?Image: Frankfurter Buchmesse/Alexander Heimann

As an example of the importance of public readings in Germany, Ethiopian-born author Asfa-Wossen Asserate described his reception at a reading in a small village in southern Germany. The attendees treated Asserate like a rock star, announcing his arrival with posters, spreading a red carpet and showing up in droves.

Angelika Wolf from the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Free University of Berlin has two theories to explain Germany's enthusiasm for books. "The first is the reading salons which existed in Berlin in the 18th-19th centuries, where people used to meet and talk about literature," she explained.

"The other reason is the fact that Germany had so many authors who influenced reading who stemmed from our culture, such as Schiller, Goethe and Hesse," continued Wolf.

Turning a page

Germans are indeed avid readers, now more than ever. According to the German Bookstores' Association, book shops experienced a small rise in revenue in 2012 - only 0.8 percent, but in the digital age just staying in the black is a feat.

Nevertheless, Goethe's birth country hasn't been left unscathed by digitalization. Between 1991 and 2011, the amount of money the average German household spends on newspapers, books and stationery dropped by 24.4 percent as a result of the global shift away from paper.

This year, for the first time in its nearly 200 years of business, book retailer Mayersche launched an Internet shop and reports that its online sales comprise 20 percent of total 2013 revenue.

Writer Asfa Wossen Asserate, Photo: DW
Asfa Wossen Asserate was warmly received at a reading in Germany

A third of its web sales come from e-books. While that means paper books still make up the bulk of its literary wares, e-book sales across Germany tripled, from 4.3 million in 2011 to 13.2 million in 2012.

"The online sales of books and e-books naturally play an important role for the whole book industry," said Mayersche spokeswoman Simone Thelen. Yet in her view, "while the e-book curve is still rising, it is flattening out." Last year's leap in sales will certainly be hard to match.

"My Christmas gifts this year were digital books," revealed Wolf. However, there are some things technology simply cannot replace, she admits. "The social aspect is getting lost. You cannot exchange digital books with one another like you do with printed ones."

For Stephanie, a customer at Thalia, an e-book is not an option. She's searching for a book for her 70-year-old father. "My father doesn't know how to use the computer. He loves taking a book to the shore and reading in the sun."

And her father is done with the book, Stephanie can borrow it and read it herself.