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Lies, damned lies, and Book Council data: a strange new survey on NZ’s reading habits

The dear old Book Council has released its annual survey of New Zealand reading habits, and claims that on average we read 35 books a year. Thirty-five! Danyl Mclauchlan asks what the devil is going on.

What do other people read? I wonder about this all the time. If I see someone reading a book on the bus I will try to identify either the cover or the title in the page header, depending on my viewpoint, and to do so I will subject them to so much scrutiny it makes them and the people around us uncomfortable. I get that this is inappropriate but I have to know.

The bestseller lists give us a rough idea of reader behaviour, but every book buyer knows there’s a wide margin between what we buy and what we start reading, and what we start and what we finish, and what we actually read and what we tell other people we’ve read.

Now, for the second year in a row the New Zealand Book Council has done a survey of New Zealand reading habits: it can’t treat my compulsions; but can it tell us who is reading, or not reading, and what they’re reading and how much and why?

Maybe? Possibly not. Surveys like this can be (somewhat) trustworthy when you’re measuring opinion: who would you vote for; what do you think of this company, or industry or issue or controversy, etc; but they’re less reliable when it comes to measuring behaviour, especially socially desirable or undesirable behaviour. How frequently do you have sex? How often do you drink? How much do you donate to charity? How many books do you read?

When you ask these kind of questions you run into “response bias”: people say what we think we’re supposed to say. We give the surveyor a fantasy version of ourselves, the person we like to imagine we are: generous donors and moderate drinkers who enjoy regular sex and have definitely finished Piketty’s Capital and Infinite Jest. People are more likely to lie to a phone survey than an in-person interview and likelier still to lie to an online survey, which is a shame because that’s the kind of survey the Book Council conducted (the methodology is at the end of the full report).

So. Eighty-six percent of adult New Zealanders, according to the Book Council, read at least one book in the past twelve months; those who do read claim they average 35 books a year, for a total of 129,755,200 books read in New Zealand per year; 50% of readers claim to read at least one book by a New Zealand author or poet for an estimated total of 16,501,300 books by New Zealand authors per year.

There’s more: 13% of adult readers claim to have begun at least one book of poetry last year, reading an estimated 3,172,900 books by New Zealand poets alone! Four percent of fiction books by adults were read in te reo Māori, with Māori respondents claiming a third of their fiction books were in te reo, with the Book Council estimating a total of 5,872,800 books in te reo read last year.

And there’s yet more, much more. But hang on: 35 books a year? Sixteen and a half million books by New Zealand authors? People reading poetry? It all sounds very unlikely. I checked with Wellington Library, figuring that the region with the highest education levels in the country would have the highest readership rates, and that it was the most likely region to be reading New Zealand literature and poetry on account of us being a bunch of effete popinjays.

The library reported that their average number of books borrowed by registered members in 2017 was just over 11 per person. Which takes us pretty close to a 2015 Pew survey which found the average American reads a mean average of 12 books a year (although, because some people read many hundreds of books a year, or at least told Pew they did, the more meaningful number might be the median: 4 books per year.)

If we start with an average of 11 books borrowed a year in Wellington, the national average of registered library members is likely to be lower, and the number of books read will be some fraction of the books borrowed, and the number of books read by non-library members is likely to be lower still, taking us closer to Pew’s median of 4/year. This might be offset by books purchased or borrowed from friends/family etc (we buy an average of 1.3 books per year) but still suggests the national average of books read per year will be so much lower than the Book Council’s result it’s hard to trust any of the other numbers.

And we shouldn’t trust any of the other numbers! Because, weirdly, even though they undertook the survey in May of 2018 they’ve extrapolated all their estimates off the 2013 census data. But the population has increased by more than half a million since then. So all of those super-precise estimates – 1,275,100 mythological or historical fiction books per annum! – consist of questionable survey results combined with obsolete demographic data.

Wellington library also supplied me with a table of its most borrowed books in 2017. The most popular book – by far – was the Official New Zealand Road Code. Seventy eight of the remaining entries on the list were children’s books; the adult books were all fiction, and all international thrillers or contemporary novels – Lee Child is easily the most popular – with the exception of New Zealand novelist Catherine Chidgey’s The Wish Child, which was the 69th most borrowed book, loaned out 277 times. Maybe there’s a “long tail” of readers borrowing a wide diversity of New Zealand authors but it is hard to imagine how you’d even get close to the 16 million books the Council survey estimates.

As for poetry, the library couldn’t give me a definite number on the amount of poetry people borrowed but they were able to supply me with the top 10 categories of books borrowed and poetry isn’t in there.

How about te reo? Publishing company Huia has a great line of Māori language books for kids; these are compulsory gifts for young children, in Wellington circles at least. But are 13% of adults really reading books in te reo every year? An informed friend guessed that the translation of Patricia Grace’s Tu was the most popular novel in te reo (also published by Huia!). I found a couple of dozen copies in the databases of the major libraries around the country. None of them were checked out. I estimate that the Council’s estimation of 5.8 million te reo books read every year is out by several factors of ten.

Can we take anything from the survey? I like to think so. Opinions, remember, are more reliable than behaviour, and when the Book Council asks people why they read, they overwhelmingly reply that they read because they like it. 82% enjoy it. 82% find it relaxing. 48% “like a good plot”. 52% find it entertaining. 24% “enjoy the physical properties of books”. (I am part of that 24%, if I’m having a bad day I sometimes go into the library and just walk around, and it calms me down.)

The Book Council wants us to read, because they’re, y’know, the Book Council; I want New Zealanders to read too, although I’m not sure I’d welcome the world their highly dubious survey hints at, a world of vast, brightly-lit warehouses stacked high with New Zealand poetry, crammed with readers who sleep and read in desperate shifts. And there’s an air of sanctimony about reading, sometimes; an implication in the marketing and the criticism that you should read Piketty because you care about inequality or Exit West because it helps refugees, of at least signals that you want someone else to help them, or that buying Bad Feminist makes you a good feminist; that reading Hannah Arendt or Timothy Snyder will stop Trump, somehow; that reading poetry is worthy, self-improving; that reading makes us better people.

This isn’t true. “Poetry makes nothing happen.” Which doesn’t mean the books we read can’t be deeply meaningful: one of the joys of life; a vast and inexhaustible pleasure. Even if you read 35, or 70, or 140 books a year every year for the 60-odd years of your adulthood you won’t come close to covering the most significant works of any substantive field, especially if you intersperse them with Lee Child novels.

So I take heart from the finding that most New Zealanders are reading for pleasure. I choose to believe this. And good on the Book Council for supporting those of us who read, even if they haven’t figured out how to count us.


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