Kaarel Tarand: Optimistic explanation of a sad outcome

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Kaarel Tarand. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

In the modern world, where information and entertainment in readable form is available from several sources, book sales reflect society's mentality about as accurately as MMS clubs represent public health, Kaarel Tarand finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

Every year, when the Estonian Association of Publishing Houses presents its chart of bestsellers, the contents or rather my fellow Estonians' reaction surprises me. While there is no real cause to be surprised as books that I read and the people I associate with read, those talked about in the editorial office of Sirp magazine or reviewed in other cultural journals very seldom overlap with those that make the chart. However, in a situation where no individual or group of friends matches the "average Estonian" based on main statistical characteristics, why should it be any different when it comes to buying and reading books?

It would be more accurate to describe the feeling as a mix of acquiescence and hope, as is the case with regular elections where citizens have yet to produce a result to my liking in the last 30 years, while society has still managed to achieve quite a bit in the conditions of mediocre management. And where every time there is hope that we can do better next time.

It is likely that the extraordinary situation has also left its mark on book sales. There were periods when people could not or dared not go shopping. Leaving aside random fluctuations at the very top, selling 2,000 copies was good enough for 40th place in 2019 and 35th place in 2020, while shifting 1,500 copies landed one in 65th and 53rd place respectively. Things are less encouraging when it comes to making the top 100 as it required selling 1,078 books last year compared to 1,153 the year before – a decline of 6 percent that is compensated neither fundamentally nor financially by growing e-book sales. The 100th most sold book in 2015 would have landed in 63rd place last year.

Now, nothing would be simpler than to explain this by lamenting a general decline in society and as a sign of culture and the nation going extinct. That said, finding rational and even optimistic explanations is not much harder. Allow me to give a few examples.

Sales figures have for years been overturning the conviction that children do not read. Bestsellers increasingly include children's books, while some stay relevant for years and make the top in subsequent editions. Children read, we could say. On the other hand, strong sales figures could also reflect feelings of guilt and being at somewhat of a loss among parents and especially grandparents when it comes to raising their children and grandchildren. For Estonians who very much consider themselves a nation of readers, a child's room absolutely must have a bookshelf. However, are the swelling ranks of books in those shelves even used? Homes where the next generation does not immediately and utterly destroy their childhood legacy upon reaching adulthood should have more than enough children's books ranging from classic fairy tales to Astrid Lindgren to fill the time a child has to read. Therefore, sales figures might not be tied to how often people read books at all.

How much time one has for reading is the key metric not just for adult readers of all ages but also for publishers. Writing, reading and crunching the numbers full time is at the heart of the daily work effort of a growing number of people. It can be no other way in the era of computers that less and less text a person reads comes in the form of books. This means that if charts seem to reflect too much in the way of children's literature and oddities one is loath to even mention, the reason is not that people read less popular science or fiction, not to mention other forms of consumer literature and other public texts, but rather that text less often morphs into a paper medium on its journey from the author to the reader. Because it is a slow road in a situation where the information age makes it possible and requires us to access everything quickly.

Thirdly, charts are also misleading when it comes to the axis of science and pseudoscience. Only Yuval Noah Harari can hope to compete with Tarot cards and solid gold oozing out of tree cavities in Kadriorg. Comparing Estonians' interest in printed encyclopedias or dictionaries today to the situation 50 or 30 years ago, one would be tempted to discount Estonians as a cultural nation altogether. In reality, the situation is probably quite the opposite. We have language sites and Wikipedia that are made use of dozens or even hundreds of times more often than printed works in people's bookshelves.

If someone claims – possibly quite accurately – that more popular science and otherwise educational literature was published 10 or 20 years ago, I would offer a guess that it is not a sign of the nation's mental degradation but rather of how poor the situation was back then when it came to journalism popularizing science. It had retreated to the fringes of nature and cultural magazines, while it has now become a mandatory part of the mainstream again. No self-respecting medium can make do without scientific news, editors and programs. Everyone has their own Novaator, Forte, news and scientific quiz shows. In summary – while we have better access to more content of higher quality, it is no longer reflected in the charts of books printed and sold that is becoming a less important metric of the nation's mental faculty.

If someone is headed down a dark path, society is obligated to help them find their way again, just as there are efforts to bring anti-vaccination activists back into the light. However, a printed bestsellers chart is about as useful at painting a picture of the nation's mentality today as an MMS users club is as a representation of the public health situation.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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