Bookworm Champs

So how are you going to spend your upcoming Christmas holidays? Curled up with a stack of books? Yes, it’s true that Xmas customs vary widely from culture to culture, but if you’re Czech it seems pretty likely that that’s exactly what you have planned, if we can go by an interview just published in Mladá fronta dnes (If Czech, then book-lover: According to survey Czechs are among the most-active readers).

The interview is with Prof. Jirí Trávnícek of Prague’s Charles Univerity, who was heavily involved with a recent survey about Czech reading habits carried out jointly by the (Czech) National Library and the Institute for Czech Literature of the (Czech) Academy of Sciences. And sure enough, that survey (termed the “most extensive so far” even as the good professor reveals towards the interview’s end that the sample was but 1,500 people) shows that the Czechs are among the top readers in the European Union, and indeed in the entire world.

Yes, among that survey’s results is the interesting nugget that a full 6% of Czechs (over the age of 15) read fifty books or more per year. But this is an interview, so MFDnes’ writer Ludek Navara quickly mounts a sneak ad hominem attack: So how many books do you read, Prof. Trávnícek? The good professor doesn’t seem to bat an eye: about 100 per year. That’s two per week, although he goes on to make clear that part of that haul is composed of poetry collections, of which he says it would be easy to read three in one day. Still, you wonder where he finds the time to sleep in view of all the activities ascribed to him by that insert over there on the left side: teacher, literary theorist, editor, critic, publisher.

By way of analogy, you could also be forgiven if you wondered how Czechs in general have time to sleep – or to read to the extent that they claim for themselves in the survey results – given all the competing media that have sprung up on the scene over the decades: radio, TV, Internet, video games, etc. But no, according to the Professor that has not turned out to be any problem for reading as an activity: “. . . one thing is sure: the reading culture is changing, we follow various media. Earlier it was said in a panic that television would steal time for reading. But it hasn’t turned out that way, instead we try to live with the book, Internet, television . . . So we seek the best way to live. The era of media ‘monogamy’ is long gone.” But this strikes me as language excessively of the “hand-waving” sort and leaves me unconvinced: surely the Czechs have to deal with the same fact of there being only 24 hours in a day along with the rest of us mortals? (By the way, for all that the Czechs are claimed to be able to accommodate their lives to new media, this survey also discloses that they remain loathe to actually order books over the Internet.)

Library Subversion

In any event, if you still are willing to accept the assertion that the Czechs are champion readers, the reasons Prof. Trávnícek gives for that are really quite interesting. The kernel of this superiority is supposedly in the Czechs’ private libraries – both their ubiquity and their extent. They had this bit of a drag called Communism to deal with for over forty years, see, and these private libraries fulfilled the vital function of substitute sources of information, even of education. “There you could find out what you could not find out elsewhere,” the good Professor explains, “and which in many cases one just did not talk about. What’s more, books were possessions that could not be nationalized.” Then again, the Czechs can ascribe their book-love not only to the ordeal of Communism but also even further back – back to the 19th century, when the very Czech language was struggling to come back to life and reassert itself (against the German that had been dominant in the Czech lands since the Thirty Years War). “We’re a nation rooted in language and books,” says Prof. Trávnícek. “Contemporary Czech was born thanks to writers, priests, teachers. Who were all people of the book.”

Cool. So is there any other European nation of greater book-lovers than the Czechs. Yes there is, says the Professor: in fact the various lands of Scandinavia are even more into books than are the Czechs. And what about the world? Then it would have to be the Canadians. (That’s among Western cultures, to which the interview is limited.) They’re the (Western) world’s greatest book-lovers because of their excellent network of libraries (presumably he means the public sort here), their easy access to books generally, and their cultural identification with their own national literature. (Funny, nothing comes to my mind with the phrase “Canadian literature” – as opposed to “Canadian musicians,” of course – but I’m probably just ignorant on that score. Canadian readers of this weblog are certainly invited to write in to enlighten me.) And by the way, one should not include here the Québécois – in fact, Prof. Trávnícek says, they rather pull down what is otherwise the excellent data on Canadian book-love.

See any common thread here: Scandinavia, Canada? That’s right, Prof. Trávnícek eventually gets around to making the logical point that the committed book-lovers are always more likely to be found the further one travels away from the equator. People who live where it’s warm all the time spend most of their lives outdoors, you see, while cold weather outside is just the thing to make a person look for something – or someone – interesting to curl up with in a blanket in front of the radiator.

Trash Reading

Then there’s the closely-related question of what it is that the Czechs are reading all the time – more precisely, of whether it’s of a nature to make the outside observer laud their reading habits or simply reject them with a dismissive wave of the hand. Yet another inserted column on the left side (the one headed Nejoblíbenejsí Kniha or “favorite book”) reveals what currently tops the Czech best-seller list. Books by Betty MacDonald dominate, both at #1 – The Egg and I, which, amazingly, was first published in 1945 – and #7 – What Life Gave and Took Away. Number two is a book about the Good Soldier Svejk, a beloved figure from Czech fable, while #3 is of course the latest Harry Potter. Then the Bible, then Grandmother by Bozena Nemcová, a timeless Czech classic that can be likened to, say, Gone with the Wind for Americans (not that I ever read it myself, or even owned it).

All in all, not a bad selection. And indeed, Navara and Prof. Trávnícek have an extended discussion (relative, at least, to the length of the interview) about brak, or “rubbish” in the reading-material sense. The Professor’s attitude here is simple: “What is rubbish?” In his view, as long as people are reading something – even the labels of the bottles of Old Rotgut from which they are guzzling, apparently – then that’s good, because then they get used to reading and might go on to do even more of it. Harry Potter, trashy sexploitation novels, and the like? No problem, all material is welcome. As he quotes his German colleagues, “The main thing is that they’re reading.” And the German case is in fact instructive in comparison: the Germans have a number of formal institutes to keep tabs on their reading habits and to promote them, while the Czechs at least lack the latter (i.e. formal organizations to promote reading). Nonetheless, the Czechs read more – again, if you want to believe this survey sponsored by the National Library and the Institute for Czech Literature of the Academy of Sciences.

(Readers are advised that EuroSavant will now take a few days’ break from posting for the holidays. I’ll be curled up with a pile of books – no joke!)

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