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Reading Between Lines for Local Mood

August 10, 1993|Patt Morrison

Like what we eat, what we read is a Rorschach of national temperament:

On their vacations, Belgians want "distractions," says Frank Discart of the Brussels bookshop Libris, "but also a reading or a rereading of forgotten classics of our own literature. There is less suspicion toward Belgian literature."

The same for Israelis, who are reading more Hebrew literature and fewer foreign novels. Ten years ago, says Sarah Weisenfeld, spokeswoman for Israel's Steimatzky chain of bookstores, "people were buying translated novels. Today's audience is different. . . . They're more Israeli, and they prefer a real Israeli style."

While the rest of us are still just trying to decipher it, Britons are keeping "A Brief History of Time," Stephen Hawking's account of life, time and the universe, at seventh place on the bestseller list after 219 weeks. But literati in the land of Milton abhor Britons' growing appetite for horror and occult books. "It's a bit worrying because quite a lot of the horror and occult books are schlock," says Michael Goldman, editor of Book Report.

Eastern Germans, banned from reading certain classics under communism, can get them now, along with popular books on saving tax money and good vacations in Spain. But in some cases, they're finding prices are almost as prohibitive as censorship was.

Summer book sales actually drop in Turkey, because reading is a student thing. Book reading for pleasure has become a pastime of the elite, says Semih Sokmen of Metis Publishing.

"Turks may not prefer reading, but it's not a disadvantage for Turkish culture . . . One person tried to popularize romantic books in Turkey, but it did not work because of television. People have a chance to watch the same thing for free."

Reading almost anything but a menu or magazine is low on the list for Italy's dolce far niente summers; Italians prefer TV and conversation, and this summer, with the recession and fascinating national scandals, sales are even lower, says Nico Orengo, book editor of the Turin daily La Stampa.

The Kenyan economy is in bad shape after several devaluations of the shilling, and book sales are so low that no one even bothers to compile a national bestseller list any more. "The Jail Bugs" is a fast-moving novel--at 7,000 copies. And most books get purchased by charitable groups that donate them to schools.

And then there's Russia, cradle of Tolstoy, of Gogol--and of "Kremlin Wives: The Facts, Recollections, Documents, Rumors, Legends, and Author's View."

Card-table book vendors take away trade from the shops, says Ludmila M. Sharapkova, editor of Literaturni Zhurnal. "Bookstores are selling less because one has to walk inside them, while book stalls and tables are always in your way as you walk around the city," she said.

Larisa Vasilieva--whose "Kremlin Wives" superseller "showed what happened to 20th-Century women using the example of these women"--despairs of the state of the art. "Nowadays I think that Russian literature has exhausted itself. It's speaking with its last voice. There is a certain development in dramatic genre all over the world. Television--it's taken everything. . . . "

TV and consumerism and capitalism have drained the time and energy once left for the contemplative pursuit of the written word. "People are otherwise occupied," Moscow News culture editor Olga E. Martinyenko said. "Earlier, writers had a spiritual importance, but not now."

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