HIGH AND LOW BLOW: If Poles Don’t Read, What Do They Do?
International Press and Books Club, 1990, photo: Felix O, flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0 license

If Poles Don’t Read,
What Do They Do?

BY Grzegorz Wysocki

How is it that readership is highest in cities and among the wealthy if 20% of college educated Poles read nothing at all, and almost 40% of professionals and managers read nothing longer than three pages?

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I recently read, for the hundredth time in my relatively short life, the results of yet another report which proves unambiguously that Poles don’t read. And let me clarify that the findings of this report were somewhat less obvious than the ones published in years passed: it turns out that not only do Poles not read books, they don’t read anything at all. By anything, I mean anything more than three pages in length: stories, articles, essays, travelogues from Egypt, India, Venezuela, or even Smoleńsk. Even campaign brochures enumerating the myriad achievements of the local mayor, who is running yet again and who will no doubt succeed, if his illiterate constituents go by the number of bullet points rather than their content.

Perhaps it would be easier to list what Poles do read, instead of what they don’t. If they don’t read any material longer than a few pages — weary from their exhausting labor in factories and corporations — perhaps they’re at least no strangers to more minimal and concise masterpieces? Could it be that Poles are a nation of haiku lovers? Could the land of the Vistula boast the world’s greatest number of epigram and limerick fans per square mile? Surely you jest. “A limerick? What the f*** is a limerick?” Haiku — maybe, but only the kind of haiku read during a number two, preferably in a bathroom stall richly adorned with poetic graffiti.

As long as we’re on the topic of wealth, I should mention that the latest report published by the National Library of Poland finds that our country’s most avid readers are found in large cities, usually own their own business, and are financially secure. I suggest we pause to ask ourselves two tricky questions. First: let’s say someone reads a lot — and I mean a lot, even more than six books annually, a magic number that automatically launches a reader into the ranks of the kind of book junkies who would rather read than live. I’ll assume such a person will read nine whole novels this year, along with four self-help books, the memoirs of Osama bin Laden’s ex-wife (Growing Up bin Laden, soon to be published in Polish by Znak under the ambiguous title “I Had to Leave”), a volume containing the newly-discovered personal notes of Marilyn Monroe (published by Wydawnictwo Literackie), and the unauthorized biography of Oprah Winfrey (published by Świat Książki, Polish for “World of Books”, if you can believe that). Will he or she be eligible for social promotion? Will they be relocated to a city with a population of over half a million? Will their salary be doubled? Such a turn of affairs would undoubtedly make me very happy, and I would be sure to take advantage of this generous offer. I should also mention that the report failed to account for the results produced by a suppressed minority that finds itself discriminated against in democratic Poland: literary critics, who by definition skew the statistics of Polish readership, despite being neither particularly wealthy nor having a knack for entrepreneurship.

I’m kidding, of course, but it’s time to ask ourselves the second, more grave question: how is it that readership is highest in cities and among the wealthy if — as the same report states — 20% of college educated Poles read nothing at all, and almost 40% of professionals and managers (not to mention our functionally illiterate civil servants) read nothing longer than three pages? Are managers and professionals not well off? Do they lack college educations? Or is it that half of the inhabitants of large cities are managers and specialists, and the other half barley make ends meet, but read books?

Izabela Koryś, a sociologist from the Readership Research Center, had the following to say about the findings of the report: “It turns out that in Poland, one can attend university without reading a book, practice medicine without following the scientific literature, and pass the bar without reading the legislation.” True, but it’s nothing we didn’t already know. You don’t have to fall ill or stick up a liquor store to check the intellectual level of our doctors and lawyers. Just enroll in university. Not in the countryside, perhaps, and maybe not in a part-time cosmetics program. I’ve seen and heard many a person boast out loud about having earned a degree in Polish or journalism at a prestigious university without reading books. These aren’t the kind of people with whom I try to stay in touch, and I’ve never dreamed of “friending” them on Facebook, nor will I be the godfather of their children, but it’s unpleasant enough to know how proud they are of their own unconscious stupidity and functional illiteracy, a fault often mistaken for cleverness.

The National Library report gives us pause and prompts the question: who is to blame — the internet? Video games? Primary education? Legal highs? The Prime Minister along with entire Civic Platform? We’ll find out next year that the state of Polish readership is worse still, even though we thought it could sink no lower. The pundits will remind us about the increase in VAT on books, the jump in price, and the subsequent drop in readership. There are always libraries, but these are being closed down as well, and the ones that remain open have little of interest on their shelves. Even if they do have a copy or two of a current bestseller in their catalogs, these titles are usually on loan.

We could list numerous major and minor paradoxes ad nauseam, and lay the blame on more or less deserving culprits. But there remains one question that won’t give me rest, and which I have posed in the title of this rant: if Poles don’t read, what do they do? What do Poles do when they’re not reading books, newspapers, poems, and haiku? They work and sleep, obviously. Admittedly, this occupies a significant portion of their time, and it would be great if one of the upcoming administrations did something about it. Just off the top of my head, I would propose a bill that would award the most avid readers with one extra day off per week, to be used for the blissful and socially progressive pastime of reading. Alas, we’ve been ruled by a plethora of different populists for decades now, and I wouldn’t count on them to pass bibliophile legislation any time soon.

Let’s return to the status quo. Poles work and sleep a lot. They eat a lot (we’re growing rather plump), complain (we’re world leaders in this category), and watch TV. Perhaps the perfect solution would be to do the latter three all at the same time? It would seem that such a simple modification (complaining while eating dinner in front of the TV) would help the average Kowalski carve out an extra half hour for reading, maybe even more. Or not — I guess you’d have to be functionally illiterate to believe in miracles like that.

translated by Arthur Barys

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