Izabela Koryś A Social Map of Readership

In a competitive market full of varied consumer products, the significance of books and their prestigious position have clearly fallen. Surveys show that fewer people feel social pressure that reading books is an appropriate activity,1 and today the size of home book collections is smaller.2 Does this mean a true decline in readership and the retreat of written culture, replaced with visual communication (television, movies)? Or perhaps the existing needs which books used to fulfil are now being fulfilled otherwise? Have books been replaced by specialist magazines or the Internet (accessible even with mobile devices) as the source of knowledge? Instead of reading the traditional printed text, have former readers ‘emigrated’ from the unidirectional communication of ‘the Gutenberg galaxy’ towards the ‘cloud’ of multi-directional, interactive, and iterative communication of the on-line blogosphere, Facebook and Twitter? What is the correlation between book reading and cognitive competencies or general literacy? What has replaced books: movies, TV programmes, YouTube, Google, or web surfing, and which social groups choose what?

And finally, what about the book format itself? The free market led to an improvement in graphics and in the quality of print. On the other hand, books became a product that was even tailored to niche segments. On the market, books are looking for buyers (while the fact of reading is a secondary issue for publishers) by attempting to fulfil their needs, accompanying important events and every stage of their lives: from books for toddlers,3 books commemorating Baptism, First Communion and other events, domestic and foreign belles lettres, to an endless array of guides, how-to, and hobby books. At the same time the life cycle of books is becoming shorter and more unstable: there are over 30 thousand publications annually in Poland,4 and unless a book becomes a success, it means a shorter shelf life in big bookshops, quicker price reductions, a quick withdrawal to the pool of cheap books and replacement with new releases. Also, books are not ‘a complete work’ of one author but more frequently the result of collective projects of many editors, ghostwriters and celebrities to catch the interest of potential buyers. Books are also deteriorating in quality as they often offer familiar and cliché content in poor language and with bad graphics.

Another area is the digital format of books which are no longer available in traditional form: these include books in PDF format, special formats for e-book devices and tablets, books in the form of mobile applications, and book scans available in official digital libraries5 or on the informal market of the Internet.6 Yet another issue is the authenticity of the electronic versions of original books. And it is not only about the sensory experience of readers who can feel the weight of a book, the texture of its cover, see its colour, smell its scent and hear the sound of pages turning. According to studies,7 a text which is read from a screen is perceived differently by the mind and engages other areas of the brain than a traditional printed sheet of paper. Moreover, the majority of content published on the Internet is not of the same quality as traditional publications released by reputable publishing houses. YouTube’s broadcast yourself philosophy, transposed to publish yourself, has caused an excess of on-line content which resembles literature, essays and scientific publications. However, the reality is that online texts only imitate professionally edited hardcopy books and press articles while being discretionary, personal, emotional, poorly formed and structured, and often with errors as to merits, spelling, inflection and syntax.8

Is the reading of such texts as valuable, enriching and desirable for society and for education as reading traditional books? Is it a better option to read just anything,even such texts, than to “stay outside the culture of the printed text” as the earlier studies described the phenomenon?9 Is it still possible today to “stay outside” and what should be the actual subject matter of study today? All the changes occurring since 1992 in the area of books, reading and the readership require that we restate the question about reading and adjust other questions to ensure that they describe the studied phenomena better. The detailed methodology and the course of the 2010 study are described in the next chapter.

1 In each phase of the reach study, there were respondents who declared themselves to be book readers (usually they ‘read’ the school classics, such as the Polish national authors Adam Mickiewicz (Pan Tadeusz), Henryk Sienkiewicz (Trilogy), etc.) although other social and demographic parameters showed that reading books is rather an unlikely practice among those respondents (this issue is described in more detail in the next chapter). The group of social conformists who always declare that they read books even if they don’t has been diminishing in size – it appears that reading books is no longer a sign of social prestige.

2 Between 1992 and 2002 the number of people who had large collections of books (at least 200 volumes, i.e. 1-2 book shelves) fell from 20% to 9%. In particular, those groups which benefited the most from the transformation of the system were the ones to get rid of the most books (people with higher education: a fall from 60% to 31%, and residents of the biggest cities: a fall from 38% to 15%). G. Straus, K. Wolff, S. Wierny: Książka na początku wieku. Społeczny zasięg książki w Polsce w 2002 roku [Books at the Start of the Century. Social Reach of Books in Poland 2002], Warszawa 2004. ISBN: 8370094481, p. 183.

3 G. Lewandowicz-Nosal: Książki dla najmłodszych. Od zera do trzech [Books for the Youngest. From Zero to Three], Warszawa 2011. ISBN: 9788361464723.

4 The 2011 national bibliography featured 31,515 book titles, with a total circulation of 93,747.3 thousand, Ruch wydawniczy w liczbach 2001 [Publishing Market Data 2001], vol. 57. On-line: ‹http://www.bn.org.pl/download/document/1342181669.pdf›.

5 Such sources allow browsing, for example, through the Polish historic manuscripts available in the National Library at ‹http://www.polona.pl/dlibra›.

6 The authors of Obiegi kultury [Circulation of Culture] report included public libraries in the informal circulation category, see: M. Filiciak, J. Hofmokl, A. Tarkowski: Obiegi kultury. Społeczna cyrkulacja treści [Circulation of Culture. Social Movement of Content], Warszawa 2012. On-line: ‹http://creativecommons.pl/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/raport_obiegi_kultury.pdf›.

7 See for example: J. Wojciechowski: Odbiór komunikatów z Internetu i druku [Perception of Internet and Printed Communication] In: Przegląd Biblioteczny [Librarian Review] 2011, book 3, p. 305–340; B. Agger: The Book Unbound: Reconsidering One-Dimensionality in the Internet Age. In: T. W. Luke, J. W. Hunsinger (eds.): Putting Knowledge to Work and Letting Information Play, Blacksburg 2009. ISBN: 9781933217000.

8 B. Agger: The Book Unbound..., see above; also see: Ł. Gołębiewski: Śmierć książki. No future book, Warszawa 2008. ISBN: 9788361154037.

9 See: S. Wierny: Co czytają Polacy, czyli uczestnictwo w kulturze druku w Polsce na progu XXI wieku [What Poles Read – Participation in the Culture of Printed Text, Poland on the threshold of the 21st century]. In: G. Straus, K. Wolff, S. Wierny: Książka na początku wieku... [Books at the Start of the Century...], see above, p. 21.