Czechs cling to literary traditions in spite of new technologies

Photo: Barbora Kmentová

March is national reading month in the Czech Republic, with special events taking place all around the country. There has always been a strong reading culture in the country, but with all the new technologies available do Czechs still have time to read? What kind of books do they prefer and how much time do they devote to reading?

Photo: Barbora Kmentová
The Czech Republic has always had a strong reading culture. Czechs are known for having extensive home libraries and to this day, a book is considered one of the most popular birthday and Christmas gifts.

During the Communist era, books by forbidden authors were secretly passed down from hand to hand. There were also the so-called Book Thursdays, when booksellers released new titles, and people would wait in queues for hours just to get hold of them. In fact, this tradition has recently been renewed, though people don’t have to wait anymore.

A recent survey has shown that the Czech Republic has the densest network of public libraries in the EU, with almost as many libraries as towns. Does that mean that Czechs still belong among the most avid readers in Europe?

Jan Trávníček is a literary theorist from the Masaryk University in Brno, who has conducted several surveys focused on reading habits of Czechs over the last eight years:

Jiří Trávníček,  photo: ČT
“The Czech Republic is quite high on the list of EU countries, with Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands and Great Britain being ahead of us, according to the criterion of one book read within a year, which is generally regarded as a measure for reading as such.

“What we observe is a so-called north-south axis in Europe. The Scandinavian countries are typically heavy readers while the southern states, such as Spain, Portugal, Malta or Greece have a smaller number of readers.”

“As far as heavy reading is concerned (13 books or more per year), Czechs are above the average. As far as passionate reading is concerned, more than fifty books read per year, the Czech Republic is again at the very top.”

In terms of figures, around twelve percent of Czechs open a book every single day. On average, they devote about 30 minutes of their day to reading, compared to over two hours spent in front of the television. Jan Trávníček offers some more data:

“On average, 84 percent of Czech citizens aged 15 years or more read at least one book in the past twenty months. There are only some 16 percent of non-readers, which is pretty good compared to the rest of Europe. Czechs read 13.2 books a year and one fifth of the population reads several times a week. When asked how often they read, the largest group of Czechs, about one fifth, say they read a book several times a week.”

Reading habits of men and women marked by big differences

Czechs not only rank among the keenest readers in Europe, but, as Jan Trávníček points out, the Czech reading culture has some specific traits compared to the rest of Europe.

“There is small urbanisation gap, for instance, which means there is no difference between small towns and villages as far as reading goes. On the other hand, there is a big gender gap compared to other European countries.

Does that mean that there is a big difference among the reading habits of men and women?

Photo: Kristýna Maková
“Yes, not only reading habits, but also in the amount of books read. Women read more than men, which is generally taken for granted, but in the Czech Republic the gap is much bigger. There is also no age gap, which is very specific for this country. For instance in Poland and Germany, reading decreases with age.”

Despite their frequent visits to the public libraries, Czechs still hold on to the tradition of family libraries, although their size is gradually diminishing. On average, a Czech family owns around 250 books but households with over a thousand books are not an exception. What is also typical for Czechs is giving books as presents:

“I have no clear explanation for this, but I think it also has to do with tradition, being involved in the reading culture. The book is still seen in the Czech environment as a sort of treasure or something like that. What we are also seeing currently is a huge nostalgia for the so-called book Thursdays under the Communist Era.

“Egg and I” among the most popular books for decades

And what particular books do Czechs like nowadays? In fact, the list of most popular titles has not been changed that much over the years:

“The most popular book within all three surveys we conducted is the book Egg and I by Betty MacDonald. I have no idea and no explanation for this phenomenon, but it is definitely very “Czech”. And the most popular author for years has been Michal Viewegh.”

Despite the somewhat unaccountable popularity of the 1945 memoir of a young wife’s life at a chicken farm, Czechs also succumb to more general trends, with Fifty Shades of Grey, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings also making it to the top five.

As far as most widely read authors are concerned, along with the Czech novelist Michal Viewegh, the list also includes Erich Maria Remarque, Dick Francis, Agatha Christie, and Vlasta Javořická, a Czech author of romantic novels for women. It is also important to point out that men and women have quite different literary tastes:

Photo: SNDK
“Women and men make totally different choices. For instance the most popular Czech book among men is Good Soldier Švejk, and for women it has always been Božena Němcová’s Babička or detective stories by Agatha Christie. Also, women read more fictional literature compared to men who read more factual and scholarly books.”

While Jan Trávníček’s first surveys focused on public libraries and to reading fiction, the most recent one looks at the book market. Although he had noticed a certain decline in the number of books bought, Mr Trávníček says he is more concerned about the excess of books on the market:

“What we have noticed recently is a feeling of being overloaded by books. It is called a consumer paradox. If you have four books, you can easily choose one, but if you have four hundred books, you are simply not able to choose. And I think it is highly debatable if the Czech book market can handle so many books and remain profitable at the same time.”

In recent years, a number of Czech publishing houses have ventured into e-book publishing, but most of the Czech population still prefer the old-fashioned paper. Jan Trávníček again:

Photo: Štěpánka Budková
“We asked the respondents if they were ready to accept e-reading as the only option in the future. What surprised me was not that a large majority of Czechs did not accept this, but that there numbers have actually grown. That's a big surprise for me. We are living in a digital age, yet we are not ready to limit ourselves to digital materials only.”

The surveys also came up with some interesting facts concerning children’s reading habits. Apparently, the amount of time spent on the internet is not at the expense of reading, as many people worry. On the contrary, children who are computer literate also tend to read more.

And how to make sure that we pass our love for books onto the next generation? According to Jan Trávníček, the role of family is irreplaceable. So if you want to bring up future readers, you have to read to them from a very early age.