Out of the five years I lived in Greece and the many summers I traveled there, I have never seen my Greek relatives read. I don’t, for the most part, ever see Greeks read. In fact, out of all my time on Greek beaches, I think I’ve only seen Greeks reading magazines, with someone reading the occasional newspaper. But certainly never a book.
Greeks aren’t big readers. It makes sense in a country that places such a high value on social life. According to a 2004 National Book Center of Greece, 43% of those surveyed said they hadn’t read a book in the last year. Why, then, according to another survey by the National Book Center of Greece, are there 841 book publishers?
In the 2004 survey, the National Book Center of Greece writes,
Are the books that are being purchased actually being read? According to the second Survey on Reading Behaviour carried out by the National Book Centre and the V-PRC Institute in 2004, there is a close interrelation between consumer behaviour and reading behaviour. All the same, only 34.0% of the population over 15 identified themselves as “book readers”, and only 8.6% stated that they read more than 10 books a year. The proportion of medium to systematic readers represents a number of about 700,000, who, it is calculated, consume approximately 7 million books per year, while the 2.4 million “weak” readers are calculated to consume another 8 million books, according to conservative estimates.
Apparently 8.6% of the Greek population consumes almost half of the book publishing market, while another 25% is responsible for the other half. The total reading population of Greece, not counting those who said they only read professional or ‘how-to’ books, is about 34% of the population, much lower–the National Book Center points out — than other European countries. Italy’s readership falls at 42% of its population, Spain’s at 45%, and France’s at 75%.
Why do so few Greeks read? Again, I suspect it’s partly because of the culture’s emphasis on social life. But I also suspect that Greeks have little access to books, since they probably can’t afford to buy many, and there is dearth of public libraries in Greece. The National Book Center points out that there are just 962 public and municipal libraries in Greece, and that “The library network is still, to a great extent, rudimentary and has not adapted to provide modern library services.” People don’t check books out of libraries, probably because they can’t.
But again, the question remains, why is the publishing industry so large? Certainly these publishers aren’t making money. The 2004 survey describes the typical Greek publisher as “a traditional, family-based company, often under-capitalised and under-funded, facing distribution problems and lacking economies of scale, necessary if one is to take advantage of the new technologies.”
The survey goes on to offer this weak explanation: “Nevertheless, the preservation of cultural diversity in the field of publishing, the survival of small publishing houses and the in-print maintenance of less popular books correspond, perhaps, to the degree of pluralism and democracy in a country.” I don’t know if I buy it. Clearly there is an elite, book reading minority in Greece, and the publishing houses are relics more than anything else, infused with old money and a sense of intellectual prestige. One publishing house, Hestia, has been in business for 120 years and has remained in the same family. The number of publishers has fallen slightly since 2006, but there are still almost 200 more than there were in 2000. It’s a mystery how all those publishers continue to survive, and why their owners didn’t go into some other line of business. It would be interesting to talk to one of those elusive, mysterious Greek readers. Except for a family friend’s fifteen year old cousin who likes to read Agatha Christie, I’m still waiting to meet one.