Skip to main content

A quiet corner of the Toronto Public Library branch at College and Huron streets.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

When the first nationwide count of book buying and borrowing weighs in with its numbers Wednesday, Canadians may be surprised by how many books they brought home in just one week: It's safe to predict the number will be in the millions. Sales figures already show that Canadians buy more than one million a week; urban library systems report weekly print circulation numbers in the tens or even hundreds of thousands.

So why are we so worried about the death of reading?

"There is a kind of anxiety about the new replacing the old," speculates Jane Pyper, city librarian at the Toronto Public Library, talking about the rise first of computers and then of electronic readers. "In the libraries we have this dialogue between formats, as activities that can support each other, but it is easier to tell a story of competition."

Pyper is one of the organizers of the second National Reading Summit, which will gather educators, parents, publishers, librarians and book lovers in Montreal this week to develop schemes to encourage more reading - and to welcome the results of the book count, which will add together last week's sales figures covering an estimated 80 per cent of the Canadian book market with the week's circulation figures from 19 urban library systems serving 11 million Canadians.

On the one hand, the Reading Summit is motivated by a fear that Canada lags other countries in promoting reading among the populace; on the other, it will be celebrating Canadians' demonstrable enthusiasm for books. It's a paradox that speaks to the gap between anxieties about literacy and our reading reality.

At the functional level, Canadian literacy is doing fine: Recent international test scores show 15-year-old Canadian students, when compared with their peers in other developed countries, continue to perform above average as readers. There has been some slippage in the reading scores measured by the Program for International Student Assessment in some provinces, but Statistics Canada has warned against reading too much into comparisons between the 2009 and 2000 studies. Other Canadian literacy and reading studies of recent years don't ring many alarm bells either.

The concern at the Reading Summit, however, is the quality of that reading.

"In rich countries most of us tend to be complacent and assume because we are literate we will be readers," said Patsy Aldana, founder of the children's press Groundwood Books and co-chair of the National Reading Campaign that hosts the summit. "[But]we don't have a functional view of it, we have a civic view of it … It's not whether you can read a newspaper, it's wanting to read a newspaper."

Aldana is particularly concerned by signs that children are losing pleasure in reading: For example, on surveys attached to Ontario's standardized tests, there has been a dramatic drop during the past decade in the number of students in Grade 3 and Grade 6 who report they "like to read." She blames an education system that has focused on producing workers rather than citizens, encouraging functional performance rather than joyful reading.

"Teaching has become test performance instead of reading for its own sake. We are not just cogs in a machine," she said.

Advocates believe reading creates more engaged citizens - in the United States, a 2006 National Endowment for the Arts study found literary readers were also more likely to be volunteers and participants in outdoor activities - and fear that children who read just to get through school will drop the habit after graduation.

The speakers at the Reading Summit include Li Qingming, principal of the Nanshan School in China, where only science and math are taught using text books and where children chose which books they will read. In Brazil, meanwhile, children's book clubs and festivals are used to promote unassigned reading, while Mexico has a law that requires the government to stock school libraries and gets adult volunteers to read to school children every week. Compared with Canada, these countries are promoting reading heavily, Aldana said.

Indeed, international comparisons are one source of concern about Canadian reading. Much media coverage of the recent international test scores focused not on how Canadian students had generally maintained their standard, but rather on how China, South Korea and Singapore have pulled ahead of Canada in the international standings. Your country's literacy, it turns out, is partly defined by a competitive international context.

Another source of anxiety about our reading habits is created by the current uncertainty in Canadian book publishing, where a few blockbusters tend to dominate the market while the mid-list struggles. BookNet, which measures an estimated 75 per cent of the English-Canadian market, recorded decreases in year-over-year sales in the first three quarters of 2010 that averaged 3.3 per cent, but has yet to publish the all-important fourth-quarter figures that will include the Christmas rush.

BookNet doesn't yet track e-books, but at least those appear to be selling like hotcakes. Random House of Canada reports a more than 400-per-cent increase in e-book sales over 2009; HarperCollins Canada says its increase is 500 per cent, although the e-book sales still make up only a small percentage of total sales for most publishers.

Are those new sales simply replacing ones of printed books? The million-dollar question for reading advocates is whether the e-book is just a format shift or whether it can actually create new readers.

"I am not euphoric, but I am optimistic," said Bruno Guglielminetti, another Summit speaker and a Quebec technology journalist who was recently appointed director of digital communications at National Public Relations. "Technology lets things circulate more easily. All the new readers are an extra boost for people who were reluctant to lug a book around. … It's the instant relationship you have with music that is now happening with books. You hear an interview with an author, you go to Amazon, one click and it's on your phone."

Aldana, on the other hand, is concerned that e-readers and online book buying will only intensify the readership for a limited number of bestsellers rather than expanding reading in general, partly because there is no human bookseller there to recommend titles.

"If you are not really a reader and someone gives you a reading machine, you will read Stieg Larsson and then what? It's the same as the Harry Potter phenomenon. How do you take these kids who can read 700-page books and find other books for them?"

Before they scamper off to the Harry Potter video game.

The Reading Summit is supposed to hammer out a series of concrete proposals in time for its third meeting in Vancouver in 2012, but its first solution is that, for both young and old, reading should be nothing but pleasure.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe