The reader as a dog

Many years ago I wrote a children’s book. For some reason the illustrations nearly always included a dog, in spite of the fact that my text made no mention of fourlegged animals. When asked why, the illustrator simply explained, “I’ve always looked upon the reader as a dog”.

Over the years this remark has acquired meaning for me. I can see my readers poking about in the text, sniffing, cocking a leg here and there, sometimes even barking. Above all, however, they are constantly tracking something down. If not lost time, then at least something they can scent but need not articulate all the time.

It therefore depresses me to hear that reading in Norway is in a bad way. I have become rather fond of that mongrel in the text. Can it really be true that the number of readers in the Norway of today is declining? There are so many people who in one way or another consider themselves readers, both at work and at leisure. There are in fact many people who read a great deal, but nevertheless the picture is not at all rosy. There are some important reservations and most of them are of recent origin.

A decline in reading
In the course of thirty years Norway has been transformed from a welfare state to a wealth society. Although welfare arrangements are still good and sound, the simultaneous growth of market liberalism and the demands of an acquisitive society have steered prosperity in a different direction. At the same time social differences have widened with the enormous increase in the amount of information available.

In retrospect, it is easy to understand that social fragmentation and class distinctions, combined with an abundance of new alternatives demanding more specialised ways of reading, have all led to a diminishing interest in general reading, particularly when it comes to reading for pleasure.

During the 1990s a number of surveys revealed a disturbing trend. The graph illustrating the reading of books among boys and men pointed sharply downwards. Girls and women had taken over. Reading appeared also to have become mainly the preserve of the middle and upper classes with the rest of the population showing little interest.

If these results were reliable, one could see potential consequences far beyond the world of writers, publishers and booksellers, first and foremost because modern democracy and freedom of speech are dependent upon a literate population. The demands of today’s society on reading skills and mental adaptability are increasing all the time. If whole sections of the population give up reading, they risk losing any possibility of developing their skills in the future. The situation revealed by these surveys clearly represented an enormous social challenge.

A reading campaign
Unfortunately there were very few politicians immediately prepared to take up the challenge. In 1997 ‘Project for Reading’ was established, the initiative coming from government bodies, first and foremost from the Norwegian Directorate of Public Libraries but also from the National Board of Education and the Norwegian Council for Cultural Affairs. Publishers and booksellers quickly joined, together with book clubs, writers’ organisations and also the Norwegian Institute for Children’s Books. They were confronted with many short-term and long-term tasks.

Firstly, to establish the reasons for the waning interest in reading, particularly among young people. Secondly, to exploit the cultural significance of literature in Norway and to enlist the wider support of other interested parties in establishing the campaign on a national basis rather than simply within the book sector, which on its own is of little socio-economic importance.

Thirdly, to draw on experiences elsewhere, since this trend of diminishing interest in reading was not confined to Norway. A number of other countries already had a tradition for campaigns of this type. ‘Stiftung Lesen’ in Germany and ‘Stichting Lezen’ in the Netherlands served as appropriate models for the Norwegian scheme.

In its first years ‘Project for Reading’ made great efforts to arrange effective campaigns but success with this type of initiative is difficult to achieve in an extended and sparsely populated country such as Norway. In addition the organisation of the whole project was top-heavy with representation from all the various parties involved and therefore less efficient than it might have been. Nevertheless it was a beginning with potential and the project achieved some success in making the politicians aware of the need for greater support.

In 1999 steps were taken to develop the project on a permanent basis and the original participants came together to form an association entitled ‘!Les’ (‘Read!’). Financial support still came from the Norwegian publishing and bookselling sector but now the authorities also entered the arena. After a while ‘!Les’ became an item on the national budget and the need for a joint, long-term effort was officially recognised.

!Les goes to work and expands
The programme concentrated on reading campaigns aimed at youngsters, particularly boys, at the stage between childhood and adolescence, since these age groups showed the greatest decline in reading. The easiest way to reach them was through the schools, but the challenge was to fashion campaigns so as to make reading attractive, not something forced upon them or viewed as a school project.

With schools in mind, a reading campaign ‘tXt’ was specially developed as the organisation’s strongest and most important initiative. At the same time, however, an overall strategy was drawn up and annual plans of action decided upon with a view to widening the area of activities and also carrying out projects of shorter duration. During the last five years ‘!Les’ has significantly broadened the scope of its activities.

In 2004 135,000 pupils in the 8th to 10th grades (about 75% of the total) took part in Campaign ‘tXt’. 40,000 secondary school pupils participated in a new, continuous initiative called ‘pure text’. 10,000 secondary school pupils took part in a project called ‘Norvengelsk’ (‘NorwEnglish’), which requires making new Norwegian words out of British and American slang expressions.

The organisation’s web site attracted more and more dedicated users. Initially ‘!Les’ had only one member of staff. Now there are two full-time employees, one project organiser and a civil worker.

The budget has been increased many times over and the organisation is particularly active with regard to school visits, talks and training. The running of the organisation and its campaigns has become much more efficient.

The 2005 Year of Reading programme contains the following projects.

  • The Young People’s Critic Award
  • Norwegian Championship in ‘Poetry Slam’ for young people, with preliminary regional finals
  • Presentation of new channels for reading and literature at three Norwegian literary festivals
  • An extensive reading project in sports circles in cooperation with several leading athletes and sporting personalities.

The distinctive character of the written word
Years of working with reading campaigns and with the surveys carried out in parallel with these projects have shown that the situation with regard to drop-outs is more complex than originally anticipated. There has been no great decline in reading generally, but we still find that boys and men read significantly fewer books than girls and women. As mentioned earlier, the new social dividing lines affecting reading habits must also be taken very seriously.

In my opinion the most important step would be to provide greater support to public and school libraries. For some time in the future, however, there will still be a need for the kind of campaigns and initiatives carried out by our organisation. Books today face far greater competition for attention than was the case fifteen years ago, although the new media are still too fragmented to replace books as a source of information, insight and artistic experiences. The distinctive character of the written word creates a context, a perspective beyond the flickering interest of the moment, opening our minds to ideas far removed from habit and everyday norms. The aim of ‘!Les’ is therefore to become a broadly-based, social movement, while at the same time supporting all those institutions which promote reading as a democratic right.

Nor will any harm be done if in the course of all this well-intentioned work, we also allow readers the right, like dogs, to sniff out their own interesting written words. Translated by Eric Deverill Portrait by Einar O. Risa

Writer and chairman of !Les.