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Rediscovering the Joy of Reading

Kristin Zeier

On World Book Day, April 23, the UNESCO focuses on promoting the worldwide access to books and reading for pleasure.


April 23 marks the death of two great literary figures, Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare. In honor of their contribution to world literature, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization has declared the day World Book and Copyright Day. On this day the UNESCO's General Conference pays tribute to books and authors, encouraging everyone, and in particular young people, to discover the pleasures of reading and its role in the social and cultural progress.

According to Koichiro Matsuura, Director General for the World Book and Copyright Day, books represent cultural and linguistic diversity, access to learning, freedom and peace. Since establishing the World Book Day in 1995, nearly 80 countries have participated in programs designed to promote books and reading.

UNESCO is also involved in translation and publication programs in Africa and the Asia-Pacific region, placing an emphasis on books for children, women, and those who have only recently acquired reading skills. To further promote universal access to reading, UNESCO has initiated the "Periolibros" project, a free monthly literary supplement involving 24 Latin American, Spanish and Portuguese newspapers. A similar project, "Kitab fi Jarida," is under way in Arab speaking countries. And in Africa the UNESCO has introduced a wide-spread literacy campaign appropriately called "Reading for All."

Reading Begins at Home

Encouraging people to read more isn’t just an issue for developing countries. Teachers, librarians and educational institutes frequently point out that fewer and fewer children in industrial countries are reading these days. Although the literacy rate is not declining, the number of books read and the number of children who read for pleasure is decreasing.

For many, electronic entertainment is to blame for young people’s lack of interest in books. When compared to moving pictures and colorful multimedia displays, books seem incapable of competing for children’s attention. In Germany one in three children experiences the world mainly through the television or computer screen. Experts fear that this is the trend of the future unless more people get involved in turning computer-age kids into book worms. And the first step to reading more begins in the home.

Numerous studies conducted in Germany and elsewhere have shown that children exposed to reading by parents who themselves regularly pick up a book most often develop into avid readers. However, the pressures of modern life and a busy schedule often prevent parents from delving into a book on a regular basis. For years literacy specialists have been warning about the so-called "knowledge gap" which arises when a generation grows up without reading and passes its ambivalence on to the next generation. For many families today, reading hardly plays a role in the choice of leisure activities. And story-time in the public library is rapidly disappearing as a viable summer activity for elementary school children.

The Book as Economic Factor

Despite such sobering news from educators and literacy advocates, the book is not entirely doomed to oblivion. In fact, the last few years have seen a rise in book profits, an increase in literary output and a diversification of the publishing market. The negative talk about books being tossed out or left to gather dust on bookstores’ shelves doesn’t dismay many in the publishing industry. The recent worldwide success of the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling attests to the staying power of good stories and the financial windfall they bring.

According to studies conducted in Germany by the Bertelsmann Stiftung (a private foundation connected to the country’s largest publisher), the number of adult book readers has actually increased over the last decade, making books one of the more profitable products in the 21st century. Statistics show that the number of frequent readers (defined as those reading more than 20 books a year) has grown from 5 ppeercent to 9 percent in the last five years. As for those who read books on a daily basis, their number has increased from 13 percent to 20 percent.

The German Book Handlers’ Association also recently published their annual study on reading habits. According to their statistics the financial aspect of the book market is still very strong. Even when ranked below television and other forms of electronic entertainment as a favorite pastime activity, reading is not completely lost, especially among the over 50 age group.

The top two reasons given for reading were relaxation or escapism, and the encouragement of positive thinking and the learning process. Publishing analysts say these results correspond to the trend of watching more television and videos, which depict idealized or fantasy worlds, and the increased interest in self-improvement activities, which often equate to improved carrier opportunities.

Book vs. Computer

Many marketing strategists in the publishing industry believe the financial success of books actually owes itself to the book’s strongest competition, the computer. Far from replacing the book, the internet has opened up new means of advertising and distributing, allowing readers the freedom to select and purchase when and where they choose: the book has thus become the most successful online product.

Authors are also discovering the world wide web and its unique combination of verbal and visual elements. The contemporary literary scene is influenced not only thematically but also stylistically through the internet, as authors attempt to replicate in print what they experience on screen. As more and more people go online, the nature of books and reading will automatically change. Market observers predict that in the future both media will rely even more on an intensive exchange, a symbiosis necessary for continued existence.

The Future of Books

The question of the future of books and reading is at the forefront of discussions on World Book Day, not least when talking to authors. A group of internationally-renowned authors met in the House of Culture in Berlin on April 23 as part of the World Book Day celebrations. Among them were Harry Mulisch, Wole Soyinka and Günter Grass. The three authors were asked to describe the pleasures of reading and the future of books in the modern media landscape.

Harry Mulisch, Dutch writer and author of The Discovery of Heaven, explained why he reads books:

"When you read a book in the Internet, it's different from reading in an armchair or on holiday where you're leaning back and relaxing. When you sit in front of a computer, you always have to sit [bent slightly forward] - and that's a far more active posture. The light comes directly from the screen to your eyes - sometimes unpleasantly so. A book, however, reflects the lamp or the sun which is a completely different reading situation. I don't think books ever disappear. Many believe that people read books in order to understand the world better... But one shouldn't read for that purpose. One should read in order to understand oneself better. A good novel is not about something out there - take Shakespeare's Hamlet: It's not about a Danish prince - it's about MYSELF. And that's why you pick it up again and again. People who say: I don't read novels, I only read biographies, only academic books -- those people simply don't know what literature is."

Wole Soyinka, Nigerian author and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986 was in Berlin for the signing of his book Isarà. When he was asked why he read books, he replied: "I don't think that books will ever lose their appeal. Someone once asked: Why do you climb mountains? - The answer was: because they are there. My answer is the same: Why do we read books? Because they are there."

Günter Grass, German author and recipient of the 1999 Nobel Prize for Literature, reflected on the future of books: "There is no surrogate for books. The act of readinnng, the private company of a book which you can carry around, to the loo, to your bed, on your travels - no computer can replace that. This intimacy provided by reading is irreplaceable. In many respects, I'm a pessimist, but as far as books are concerned, I'm sure they will survive. "