About ten years ago, a Polish sociologist Miroslaw Pęczak surveyed people from cities of various sizes, posing a seemingly simple question. What do you do during your free time?
Apparently, young people prefer meeting their friends and listening to music, while the elderly like to hang outside often in their gardens. And most of them - from both groups - do not read books. According to the latest report released by the Polish National Library, 58% of Poles have not read a single book in the past year. It has been a steady trend for some time now. A social campaign after a social campaign. It all seemed to cause little to no increase in the number of books read. Why is it that Poles do not read in their free time?
The mysterious case of free time and its disappearance
Let’s get into the shoes of the non-existent statistical Pole. First, when young and out of money, most teenagers will try to look for the cheapest ways to spend their free time. Little disposable income means hanging out with friends in parks and on the streets or listening to music available for free. The elderly living off astonishingly low pensions are often forced to choose between medicine and rent, let alone a new piece written by Stephen King.
The faint echoes of adults chanting about free books in libraries are nothing but echoes. Unless you live in a big city, you will struggle to find good youth fiction or current bestsellers on your local (and terribly underfunded) library shelf. The contemporary list of prescribed reading for students is not exactly appealing either. I firmly believe that forcing thirteen-year-olds to read Sienkiewicz to then discuss it superficially and pass a test might be the reason why so many young people think of reading as a chore rather than an enjoyable activity. If we force young students to read books mostly written in Old Polish, it does not become surprising that some will get discouraged from reading in general.
Back to the statistical Pole. You are at school from eight in the morning until at least four in the afternoon and get back home an hour later. At home, you have two extra hours of homework and exam prep. By the time you finish, you probably have had enough of flexing the wrinkly muscle of yours for today and would rather play some video games. No one’s brain can handle being at its highest performance level for the entirety of the day, and there’s nothing shameful in taking a break.
Yet, the tired, overworked and stressed people are shamed year after year for not spending their scarce free time in a way other people deem ‘appropriate’. In 2019, Grzegorz Wysocki, a Polish journalist, wrote for Gazeta Wyborcza how appalling it is that people excuse their poor readership with lack of time. After all, if you have the time to call your best friend, you should make time for some reading, too. Wysocki ignores the exhaustion and accessibility issues. The National Library survey showed that most of the readers live in the biggest Polish cities, which have higher average incomes and better-equipped libraries. I would argue that it is not only about access and tiredness but about the social and cultural capital of our families as well.
It is definitely easier to read books if it was an activity implemented in your life at early stages. It is easier to read books if you were raised as a reader. It is easier to read books if your parents were able to supply you with well-written, exciting youth fiction that will get you hooked in an instant. Yet still, most importantly, it is definitely easier to read books if you have the time and energy to do so.
Hustle boy, hustle!
Pęczak’s research on leisure did not include one particular group of people. A rather large one, too, for there are millions of people between the youth and the elderly. They are the ones hustling, working two jobs and picking up extra shifts. They are the ones who overwhelmingly claim they do not have a thing called free time, according to Pęczak. There is always something else to do. It might be difficult to grab a book while also doing the cleaning, cooking, parenting, shopping, and maybe a sprinkle of socialising for the sake of mental health. How can one expect society to enjoy reading in their free time when the society does not have the free time in the first place?
Every year, more and more people struggle with depression, stress-related illnesses, and being overworked. Suicide attempts among the Polish youth doubled in recent years. The Future of Your Health report suggests that 62% of Poles struggle with burnout syndrome. This gives us a hard-earned third place in Europe. The problem reaches deeper than that. People are tired and overworked while living in overcrowded apartments with roommates even when they are thirty-five. Yet we are told to keep hustling — take that overtime, get that side-hustle, volunteer at your local youth centre, go to museums, theatres, cinemas, and other cultural events, and, of course, read a book. Or two. Twelve would be nice!
While you can watch TV and do the dishes simultaneously, you cannot read a book and fold the laundry or feed your baby at the same time. When you come back from a 16-hour shift as a nurse earning barely above minimum wage, your first instinct is not to read Bukowski but rest. Your body and your mind alike; the last thing you are going to do is reach for a book that requires more thinking and focus — you have been focused non-stop for the past 16 hours in a high-stress environment. What you want right now is an easy-to-digest piece of media that will help you relax. Is this so surprising? Being a teacher, after hours of reading and marking school essays, you might opt for a movie rather than another pile of text. As of 2020, we have ca. 260,000 nurses and 250,000 teachers working in Poland. And these are not the only ones who struggle with being overworked and underpaid.
What’s so special about books?
We need to unpack the weird obsession with reading books as the ultimate and superior form of media consumption. Is reading a poorly-written Harlequin so much better than watching an award-winning, thought-provoking movie? Is reading anything, no matter how poorly written, that much better than reading nothing? How can we compare a person who read one book last year, be it ‘Crime and Punishment’, to someone who read the Harry Potter series for the fifth time? Which one gained more? And more of what? The statistics are not that great at capturing neither the quality nor the number of texts we have read.
‘Even reading bad literature can help your imagination and ability to form coherent thoughts and sentences’. This statement is not necessarily untrue. It does not hit the spot either. Books are not the only things employing the written word in an attempt to educate, humour or excite us. So do newspaper articles, academic journals’ publications and even blog posts. These are all there for us to read, often in easily manageable bites that can fit in those 15-minute breaks at work. One can start and finish an entire article while commuting to work!
If they have read zero books last year, does that mean they have not read a single interesting, educational, moving piece of writing for twelve months? Are books all there is to reading? What about audiobooks? Is it still ‘reading’ a book? If yes, what about podcasts? Are they really that different? Cannot they offer everything a biography or a non-fiction book does? If podcasts fulfil these requirements, then maybe YouTube videos do as well… Where is the line?
Here we arrive at the very core of the problem - is reading books inherently better than any other form of media consumption? Is it better just because it is books and the written word, or is it better because we associate books with intelligence, no matter what the book is about? Is there value to reading books in itself? ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ will doubtfully make you more cultured, but a forty-minute podcast summarising the thoughts of Plato might do the trick. And what does it mean to be cultured anyway?
Graduated from Oxford with a BA in Geography, now studying Urban Studies at the University of Warsaw. A Humanity in Action Fellow and, as such, her main interests revolve around the intersection of gender and class, as well as biopolitics and urban resistance.