The recently released Arts Council and the National Statistics Office Cultural Participation Survey shows a 44% figure for persons who have read at least one whole book during the last 12 months. The survey on cultural participation is based on a sample of around 1,000 positive replies approximately divided per capita, according to Malta’s regions. The survey is on whether people have read a book, went to the cinema or a film-screening, listen to the radio, visited an art gallery, watched a play or engaged in these same cultural activities and others, including parish feasts.
This survey is a commendable yet rare exercise. Scientific surveys on culture are always welcome and Etienne Caruana at NSO, who for years has coordinated cultural statistics, should be commended for his work. Admittedly, public functionaries in education and culture have to work with a dearth of statistical data and scientific studies and the work of professionals like Caruana should be intensified and extended both at a central level, meaning at NSO, and in ministries and public entities. Since the Cultural Participation Survey is a rare exercise, it is even more important to commission other surveys on culture to obtain the best scientific result possible. One can easily cast doubts on aspects of the results of a survey if it stands alone, without being corroborated with other surveys on the same subject.
I would not be so fast as to jump to pessimistic conclusions on the basis of the 44% figure. As a matter of fact, I have some doubts about its accuracy, although I might be proved wrong if more surveys are commissioned and they all corroborate the same figure. Still, the Eurobarometer survey of 2013 had marked a 55% readership rate of books, recording an increase of 10% from the 2007 figure. The increasing readership rate was then corroborated with an increasing trend in book consumption and imports. Thus, overall we had very good reasons why to be optimistic of readership rates and book consumption.
The new 44% figure does not decrease my optimism. One has to admit that the same Cultural Participation Survey gives reasons to be optimistic. The survey indicates that it is the young who form the greatest chunk of the reading population. If the young generation is more likely to read books than their progenitors, then an upward trend in readership rates could be in the offing. This argument can be challenged by the fact that once young people have children, they might abandon many of their activities.
We also still have to wait to see the full benefits of the massive literacy and reading campaigns which have been initiated at a primary school level by the previous Labour administration. The National Book Council has played a small and yet crucial role in this strategy by giving out free book tokens to school children who attend the Book Festival in November and ensuring that the Festival inspires a positive outlook to reading and books in children and young teenagers.
School and class libraries are also being filled to the brim with books. The raison d’etre behind this drive is simple: catch them when they are young. Promoting the importance of reading and books to the general public is still a government priority and this is how the National Book Council comes into the formula. This is why under my chairmanship, the Book Council has spent considerable sums of its budgets in both print and online media, TV programmes, and even adverts and marketing drives on social media.
The survey also gives us the possibility to ask more questions and this is another reason why more detailed surveys are needed. Assuming both the Eurobarometer and the Cultural Participation are accurate, is there a chunk of readers who may read books intermittently according to what books are published? Fifty Shades of Grey might be a case a point.
If one were to assume this survey is accurate, then surely this should serve as a wake-up call for the government to increase exponentially the budget for the National Book Council. Under the previous Nationalist administrations, the book industry was all but ignored on a policy level, with the result that most of the cultural funding went to theatre, music and other cultural sectors, leaving the book sector completely out. Catching up with lost time and opportunity is difficult when the priorities had been set before one comes to office. Moving funds from one sector to another is also a bone of contention and a political issue, so any funding we receive is over and above the funding which has already been previously prioritised by government policy.
Books are not just a cultural segment offering enjoyment and an experience. Books are a pre-requisite for the educational and intellectual development of a society. A low readership rate should be a wake-up call for a government to pool its resources and step up its efforts in education, literacy and book promotion.