Izabela Koryś


Chapter I


In the initial survey of 1992 that opened the series of studies devoted to the social reach of books, the question posed was “Do you read books?”1 Such a question was rather unambiguous, both in terms of the many ways one can ‘read’ a book as well as the meaning of ‘book’ itself. A book could be described well by simply paraphrasing the saying that a book is a book is a book.2 Regardless of whether it is Marcel Proust’s In search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu), a school version of the Polish national epic Pan Tadeusz, a dictionary, an atlas or an art album, the mental prototype of a book that the average Pole had in mind was most likely close to the actual bibliological definition of a book, namely a hundred or more pages in a hard or soft cover bound on the side.3 But books have always been much more than their physical format. For over four decades books provided the space for the ideological battle over restrictions on “spontaneous forms of culture.”4 Books were the tool used by the authorities to force only selected content and a sanctioned and censored product which, to show their high social status, people exhibited in their cabinets and private collections.5 Book reading was deemed one of “the integral elements of the participation in culture,6 an attribute of “specialists of non-technical professions(an official euphemism for the intelligentsia),7 and “the source of prestige which was (theoretically) spreading among new social groups as they attended secondary schools.8 Moreover, in 1992 audiobooks, together with books written with the Braille system, were part of typhlological collections mainly, with the Internet available only at very few academic centres and very different from the one available today.

The political and economic transformation liberalised the book market. The early 1990s saw the surge of many independent publishers producing books that used to be available on the black market only, books by popular authors which used to be published in insufficient quantities much below the actual demand, and translated versions of popular titles for the mass of readers who used to be either ignored by the former authorities or addressed on a limited scale only (with similar processes applying to the press as well). Unlike before, the easy access and abundance of books which were now being sold not only in book shops but also in open-air stands, marketplaces, kiosks and even supermarkets, resulted in a rising demand and interest in books among various social groups. In 1992, as many as 71% of respondents declared that they had “read a book”9 in the past 12 months, and this appears to have been the maximum “social reach of books in Poland,” with no other surveys approximating that level either before or after. However, the level of 71% has been the reference point since then and has provided the key argument behind the theory of a coming crisis in Polish readership. Yet Poland was not the only such case, as a similar decline in readership was observed also in Russia,10 and in other developed Western countries beforehand as well.11

1 G. Straus, K. Wolff: Polacy i książki: społeczna sytuacja książki w Polsce 1992 [Poles and Books: Social Status of Books in Poland 1992], Warsaw 1996. ISBN: 8370091628, p. 57 and next pages., also see p. 288.

2 As explained by Katarzyna Wolff, “in all previous ‘social reach of books’ studies books were considered an obvious item that did not require an additional definition and its understanding was left to the respondents, according to the paraphrased saying that ‘a horse is a horse is a horse’ ;” K. Wolff: Dawne i nowe dylematy czytelnictwa [Old and New Dilemmas in Readership]. In: Z Badań nad Książką i Księgozbiorami Historycznymi [Studies on Books and Historical Book Collections], 2009, vol. 3, p. 150.

3 1964 UNESCO definition of a book: “Bound non-periodical publication having 49 or more pages (not counting the covers) and intended for the public,” in: K. Migoń: Nauka o książce: zarys problematyki [Science of the Book: Outline of Issues], Wrocław–Warszawa–Kraków–Gdańsk–Łódź 1984. ISBN: 8304017067, p. 18.

4 See: S. A. Kondek: Papierowa rewolucja. Oficjalny obieg książek w latach 1948–1955 [Paper Revolution. The Official Book Market in 1948-1955], Warszawa 1999. ISBN: 8370093698, p. 206.

5 Although the last two remarks apply to soviet society, it can be assumed that the Polish authorities implemented a similar cultural policy as the one in the Soviet Union – see: J. Zavisca: The Status of Cultural Omnivorism: A Case Study of Reading in Russia, In: Social Forces 2005, vol. 84, no. 2, p. 1233–1255.

6 E. Wnuk-Lipińska, E. Wnuk-Lipiński: Problematyka kształtowania się potrzeb czytelniczych [Reader Needs and Their Development], Warszawa 1975, p. 9.

7 See above, p. 56. In modern times, Henryk Domański treats the size of home book collections as the feature of the intelligentsia that makes it stand out from the other social groups, see: H. Domański: Dystanse inteligencji w stosunku do innych kategorii społecznych ze względu na położenie materialne, pozycję rynkową, prestiż, samoocenę pozycji i stosunek do polityki [Distance of Intelligentsia to Other Social Groups Depending on Financial Status, Market Position, Prestige, Self-Assessment and Political Views]. In: H. Domański: Inteligencja w Polsce: specjaliści, klerkowie, klasa średnia? [Polish Intelligentsia: Specialists, Clerks, Middle Class?], Warszawa 2008. ISBN: 9788373881600.

8 E. Wnuk-Lipińska, E. Wnuk-Lipiński: Problematyka kształtowania się potrzeb czytelniczych [Reader Needs and Their Development], Warszawa 1975, p. 58.

9 G. Straus, K. Wolff: Polacy i książki... [Poles and Books...], see above, p. 59.

10 J. Zavisca: The Status of Cultural Omnivorism..., see above.

11 Between 1982 and 2002, the declared book readership in the US dropped by 17 percent points from 59.8% in 1982 down to 42.8% in 2002, see: National Endowment for the Arts: To Read or Not to Read: A question of National Consequence, Research Report no. 47, Washington 2007. Online: ‹www.nea.gov.research/ToRead.pdf›.