Differences between male and female reading patterns become entrenched early on, according to a consumer survey. Geraldine Brennan reports
PUBLISHERS and booksellers are used to selling books and librarians are used to encouraging readers to read them.
These groups must now pool their skills, marketing the act of reading a book for pleasure in itself as if it was a potential best-seller, to overcome consumer objections ("I'm too busy", "I should be reading something useful") and winning over a world-weary and fickle market.
The strategies they develop should help schools which also have to "sell" the idea of books in general.
The National Year of Reading, which ended last September, sought to promote and value equally all kinds of texts from broadsheets to bus tickets. Reading the Situation is a bid by publishers, booksellers and public librarians (who have been working together for a year in The Reading Partnership) to establish lifelong book-reading patterns and find out how books fare in the competition for precious time.
Attitudes to books and reading among of all ages were canvassed last winter in focus groups and a postal questionnaire of 2106 households. About 900 replied. Unlike the Waterstone'sGuardian Nation of Book Lovers survey last year, this is not a study of people already well-disposed to books.
Neither is it a large in-depth study of young people's reading habits like the 1996 National Centre for Research in Children's Literature report Young People's Reading at the End of the Century, which included a survey of 12,000 under-16s and will be repeated in 2001. However, 29 per cent of the weighted sample who replied to the questionnaire were children under 16. The report offers some findings about the differences in girls' and boys' choice of reading matter which confirm existing concerns about boys' reading and show these habits to have lifelong effects.
Girls start reading more books than boys early (between six and seven). Women continue to read more books than men throughout their lives. Boys and girls choose different types of books from as young as six. Girls are almost twice as likely as boys to read poetry (including nursery rhymes) and fiction, but are less likely to read comics and graphic novels. Later on, the gulf between adult male and female readers of fiction is at its widest between ages 25 and 34 and for the over-65s.
Reading the Situation also offers an insight into the reading climate In this picture, there are books in 90 per cent of the homes surveyed and almost all parents say they read to their children or encourage them to read, even if they do not read themselves. Eighty per cent of people think they are reading as many or more books than they did five years ago. Lack of time is the main reason given for not reading more
To older teenagers, other activities seem more attractive. Fifteen to 16-year-olds are more likly to read magazines than books. The lowest level of interest in books is registered at around 18 to 19. Women quickly recover from this "dip" but men don't.
A less concrete outcome of this research is the glimpse it offers of the public life of the reader, which happens outside school and home and involves seeking out books or stumbling across them.
Other readers, booksellers and, especially, librarians are key to this process of developing reading tastes and taking risks with books. Girls are three times more likely than boys to borrow books from a public library. Young adult women (up to the age of 34) are four times more likely to read library books as well as buying their own, while men are more likely to settle for buying books. Overall, people who borrow more than five books a month tend to buy them too.
The libraries' role in creating the "sociable reader" who discusses books with friends, attends events with writers and joins reading groups is confirmed in the section of this survey that looks at how people choose the books they do.
Libraries' "reader development" work came into its own during the National Year of Reading. Many ideas which found their way into events during the year - book swaps, Drop Everything and Read, a "book in a brown paper bag" lucky dip - came from Opening the Book, an organisation set up to train librarians in reader development.
The smarter chain bookstores have imported reader development tactics, along with sofas, Italian coffee machines and lifestyle advertising. Waterstone's and Opening the Book have now collaborated on The Reading Group Toolbox. Like librarians, reading groups have recently started to acquire a public image.
People who read to get peace and quiet might be cynical about this public co-option of what they perceive as a blissfully private indulgence. In the same way some people will take exercise because they feel wrong without it: others need to be seduced by new trainers, posh gyms or friends to go swimming with them.
The sociable reader should be welcomed. Schools want young people to read, young people want to think of themselves as sociable, and the more adult sociable readers they see around them the better.
Reading the Situation: book reading, buying and borrowing habits in Britain is available from Book Marketing Ltd, 7a Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3RA, 020 7580 7282, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org at pound;37.50 for libraries and other public sector
organisations and pound;75 for others. READING THE SITUATION
* From the age of six, girls read more books than boys and this trend continues throughout their lives.
* Boys and girls choose different types of books from as young as six.
* Girls are three times more likely than boys to borrow books from a public library.
* A sixth of children never use reference books, turning instead to electronic sources.