Every day, I watch people reading. They read in parks, on trains, in queues. They crack a book with their coffee in a café or catch up on reading as they smoke in the street. Recently, I watched a pair of little kids navigate the metro’s stairs and tunnels without lifting eyeballs from their comics.
In France reading really matters. At last weekend’s Paris Book Fair, the state announced its annual figures. They were staggering. During 2017, fully 89% of French residents over the age of 15 had read a book – at least one. (Not counted: e-books, reading done for a job or anything read to children).
Forty percent of the population got through between five and nineteen books last year. A quarter of the population gobbled up more than twenty.
This might explain the bookstores in my neighborhood. If I try to count, I stop around twenty-five. After that, you just lose track.
Within a ten-minute walk there are: general bookstores (one that is open till midnight every night), art bookstores, antiquarian bookstores, stores for graphic novels, stores selling manga, foreign-language bookstores, children’s bookstores, medical bookstores, one store of books on heraldry, sci-fi specialists, one devoted just to heraldry and an academic bookstore spread over five locations.
There are stores run by publishers, stores devoted to artists’ books, numerous rare booksellers and two stores filled with publications on photography. Not to mention three stores that stock books in English and secondhand stores of every possible type.
The short version is the French regard reading as sacred. Books are legally classified alongside bread, water and electricity. All of the, are – legally – life’s “essential commodities”. But you don’t need to know the law. You can just look around.
• This year’s Salon du Livre attracted 162,000 visitors – which was 10,000 more than the year before. Everyone complained about the lack of heating but they went.
• Amazon may dominate the Anglophone world. But, in France, they struggle. Partly because under 20% of new books sell online; readers prefer to buy them in a physical bookstore.
• French bookstores have their own union, their own annual festival, their own government supports – and a range of publications. French radio follows writing old and new while reading provides TV with primetime shows.