Olga Dawidowicz-Chymkowska

STABILITY AND VOLATILITY OF THE TEXTUAL WORLD - CHOICES MADE BY BOOK READERS AND BUYERS

Chapter I

INTRODUCTION

Book reading is only one of the many types of reading so important in the lives of societies today. For this reason, the questions asked in this survey pertained not only to books in either paper or electronic form but also the press, Internet content and a general text of several pages in any form. This methodology allowed Izabela Koryś to draw a multidimensional picture of readership in Poland (as described in the first part of this report). Koryś disassembled the declared reader and buyer behaviour into a broader array of information about the public’s contact with text.

This broader approach does not imply, however, that books have ceased to be the area of special interest to the Book and Readership Institute of the National Library. The fundamental task of this multi-year study has always been to describe in-depth the phenomena and processes that are decisive for the social role of books in modern Poland. This part of the report is dedicated fully to analysing respondents’ declarations concerning their contact with books. The information provided in the first part of this report – namely, how many Poles define themselves as book readers and buyers and how much different social groups are interested in books – will  be supported in this part with more detailed data on the types, subjects, specific authors and titles of books that the respondents indicated as their choices for reading and/or buying. This knowledge provides a foundation for identifying certain functions (cognitive, emotional, social) performed by books, which are a unique medium, and defining the attributes of their content.

The 2010 book reading and buying data are supplemented with a historical background in the first part of this report.1 A brief historical summary seems appropriate here, as the year of the current study phase is not only the tenth anniversary of the inaugural The Social Reach of Books, the study conducted by the National Library every two years, but it also closes the first 20 years of the free publishing market in Poland with the resultant vast offering of books.

A summary of the areas of interest from the last 20 years follows a short description of the nature of the collected data and an explanation of the study’s methodology.

Open-ended questions – readership data obtained in The Social Reach of Books

First, let us explain our method of collecting information about book authors and titles of interest to the Poles. It is crucial that the information was collected on the basis of answers that the respondents submitted to open-ended questions, such as “Can you list the books that you read in the past 12 months?” and “Can you list the books that you bought in the past 12 months?” This means that the study is based exclusively on what a given respondent is willing to tell and able to recall about his/her readings and purchases.

Responses can be interpreted correctly only if the interpreter is aware of the limitations of this methodology. After all, an answer may address a question different from the one that was actually asked. The respondents cannot actually be expected to list all the books they came across in the preceding 12 months. This is not possible because of the limitations of human memory, individual perceptions of the terms book or purchase and, not unimportantly, a respondent’s desire to project a particular image of themselves. Therefore, this study is not a source of exhaustive information about the exact books that Poles had in their hands. However, the study can answer a different question of at least equal value: how do Poles like to portray themselves as readers and how well can they accomplish this? This study is able to demonstrate the image of books in the public mind. Based on the 10 surveys carried out over the past 20 years, the changes in the range of book readership and buying practices can also be evaluated in terms of internal shifts and the impact of various social and literary events.

Unavoidable pigeon-holing: The principles of classifying books indicated by respondents

The trends observed in the collected data depend largely on the method of description. Let us begin by explaining the criteria according to which the books listed by the respondents have been classified.

According to the traditional method applied in the previous phases of the study, the categories used here are based on both the genre description of texts (as employed in the study of literature) and their actual usage in society (customary classifications and descriptions of books that reflect the perception of books among our respondents and the readers of this report alike).

The body of literature mentioned by the respondents was divided into three parts. The first part contains various types of fiction. It includes three types of popular fiction books for adults: romance & drama, action & detective and speculative fiction; and two types of “high” literature: classic (books published in Poland before 1945) and modern (published since 1945). The issue of the potentially subjective evaluation of the classic and modern literature was resolved by applying prevailing customary usage as the basis for classifying those types of literature (rather than the personal taste of the study’s authors), as well as the other types. As such, the high literature category includes titles for which there is evidence of such perception among the majority of critics and readers. A separate category encompasses novels, short stories and poetry intended for young readers and/or read primarily by children and adolescents. These works are classified as children’s literature and adolescent literature. We also decided to include in the fiction category set readings for school (in the previous phases of this study, they were included in the broader category of school textbooks). This category covers high literature that is included in the school curriculum and was named by respondents who were secondary-school pupils.

The following section describes the various types of non-fiction. This category includes documentaries, essays and works by journalists, encyclopaedias and dictionaries, guides, instructions, scientific and popular science books. These categories cover the vast majority of literature mentioned by respondents, but not all the works listed by them. This led the authors of this study to create an additional structural division based on subjects, because it covers even the most unusual works that would otherwise be omitted from all the categories based on literary genres and customary usage (i.e., books which the respondents described by subject only, such as “history”, “health” or “child care”). Above all, this additional division intends to provide a more in-depth view of areas of interest to the respondents.

The books listed by readers and buyers were analysed again, but this time solely in the context of their subjects. Several subjects appear most frequently in the respondents’ answers: in addition to religious and esoteric literature (these categories were used in the previous study phases), the new categories include history, travel & geography, psychology, the human body (health, nutrition, sports, fitness), business & law, the environment and technical subjects.

Let us add that the analysis by subject covered mainly non-fiction works, the group that required this additional description to begin with. Such categories as scientific literature, guides, documentaries – unlike the very specific fiction types such as romance or detective stories – tell very little about the actual content of interest to readers.

Only historical literature received special treatment. The term “historical book” is a description used frequently by respondents to cover both fiction and non-fiction. For this and other reasons, we decide that this very broad but unusual category is useful because it covers both fiction and non-fiction and, as such, demonstrates the entire scope of readers’ interest in history.



1 The current results are compared with the data found in the previous reports of earlier readership studies carried out by the Book and Readership Institute (National Library) Specifically: G. Straus, K. Wolff: Polacy i książki: społeczna sytuacja książki w Polsce 1992 [Poles and Books: Social Status of Books in Poland 1992], Warszawa 1996. ISBN: 8370091628; G. Straus, K. Wolff: Czytanie i kupowanie książek w Polsce w 1994 r. [Book Reading and Buying in Poland 1994], Warszawa 1996. ISBN: 8370091725; G. Straus, K. Wolff: Zainteresowanie książką w społeczeństwie polskim w 1996 r. [Polish Society and its Interest in Books in 1996], Warszawa 1998. ISBN: 8370092357; G. Straus, K. Wolff: Sienkiewicz, Mickiewicz, Biblia, harlequiny... Społeczny zasięg książki w Polsce w 2000 roku [Sienkiewicz, Mickiewicz, Bible, Harlequin Series... Social Reach of Books in Poland 2000], Warszawa 2002. ISBN: 8370094082; 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 2000], Warszawa 2004. ISBN: 8370094481; G. Straus, K. Wolff: Czytanie, kupowanie, wypożyczanie. Społeczny zasięg książki w Polsce w 2004 roku [Book Reading, Buying, Borrowing. Social Reach of Books in Poland 2006], Warszawa 2008. ISBN: 8370094465; G. Straus, K. Wolff, S. Wierny: Czytanie, kupowanie, surfowanie. Społeczny zasięg książki w Polsce w 2006 roku [Reading, Buying, Surfing. The Social Reach of Books in Poland 2006], Warszawa 2008. ISBN: 9788370096175; I. Koryś, K. Wolff: Wybieram książkę. Społeczny zasięg książki w Polsce w 2008 roku [I Choose Books. The Social Reach of Books in Poland 2008], Warszawa 2010. ISBN: 9788370096342.

The conclusions drawn from the trends observed in the behaviour of Polish readers over the last 20 years are largely a transposition and a synthesis of the analyses conducted by the authors of the earlier study phases.