As a writer and a part-time librarian, I found myself somewhat dismayed by the 2018 Book Reading in New Zealand report commissioned by the NZ Book Council.
I suppose as the popular 1944 song, Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive, by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer goes, we should focus on and rejoice in the finding that 86% of Kiwi adults 18 years or over, had read or started to read at least one book in the past 12 months. That is 2,756,400 Kiwis who eschewed the digital temptations and treated their imaginations to a dance with a writer.
That still left 14% who had read no books in the past 12 months. Luckily, these folk weren’t illiterate because the survey found that most of this 14% had chosen to stick with the factual and often frightening world of newspapers and magazines. However, (and I know this will seem a completely alien concept to NZ Book Council members and supporters) around 68,400 Kiwi adults had not read anything at all in the past 12 months!
When the New Zealand Book Council (Te Kaunihera Pukapuka o Aotearoa) was established in 1972, the UNESCO International book Year, it was created as an organisation whose aim was to promote books and reading, an aim that included fostering the reading and creation of New Zealand literature. In an ideal world for Kiwi writers and the NZ Book Council, we would have 100% of our population reading and including a healthy dose of New Zealand writing in their voracious reading appetites. But we all know that we’re striving up a mountain whose summit remains ever unattainable and the plethora of on-demand television and internet distractions is depleting our oxygen. But like Ed and Tensing, our footsteps never falter. I have no doubt that the good folk at NZ Book Council will keep resolutely chipping away at that 2% of non-believers amongst us.
Another cause for rejoicing, one closer to home, was that 2,116,400 Kiwis reported reading books by New Zealand authors or poets in the past 12 months. That’s a whisker shy of half of the country. Take a bow, Kiwi writers. Give the cultural cringe a wave as it disappears over the horizon. The survey estimated that New Zealand authored books (fiction, poetry and non-fiction) were read a whopping 25,591,100 times in the past 12 months.
And one statistic that warms the cockles of my librarian heart is that fiction, non-fiction and poetry readers were most likely to have heard about books by New Zealand authors and poets from recommendations or browsing in libraries, bookstores or on the internet. We’re big on readers advisory and themed displays in our neck of the library woods and I would hazard a guess that so are my library colleagues nationwide.
But enough self-congratulatory back-slapping. What dismayed and concerned me was the finding that men are reading less. The survey found that the percentage of female respondents reading has remained essentially the same, but there was a decline in the percentage of male respondents reading.
It’s wonderful to be presented with all the data, but this is hardly surprising to those of us who read and frequent libraries, bookshops, poetry readings and literary events such as the recent joyous literary gluttony that is Word Christchurch. Look around and it’s not hard to see that women heavily outnumber men in all of these environments.
According to the Book Discussion Scheme, they have presently more than 1200 book groups throughout New Zealand which contain more than 11,000 individual members. I could not obtain a breakdown by gender, but I seem to remember reading somewhere that 85% of BDS members are women. I belong to an all-male BDS Book Group (we’re not misogynistic, but all our wives are in their own book groups) and around Christchurch all-male book groups are probably sighted as often as our beloved godwits.
My personal experience is that I know or encounter a lot of men who only read car manuals or woodworking manuals and the like. Or they retire at age 65 or later and they find they are getting under their wife’s feet so she sends them off to the library where they get perhaps what is their first library card or the second since they were at primary school. They then usually devour David Baldacci or Lee Child thrillers. No disrespect to Messrs. Baldacci and Child, but they’re no Damien Wilkins or Catherine Chidgey.
So how do we get more men to read in Aotearoa? I’m sorry, but I’m no sage or guru and I have no idea. But you can bet your reading glasses, the NZ Book Council is working on it.
Andrew M. Bell is one of the Writers in Schools. His last book was “Green Gecko Dreaming”, a collection of poetry. He has a book of various prose formats entitled “Travels in Eclectia” being published soon.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This blog originally appeared in an edited version on the NZ Book Council website.