Fewer in Denmark read books, despite publishing growth

Although the number of books to be found on the shelves of libraries and bookshops in Denmark is steadily increasing, the number of people reading them appears to be on the wane.

Fewer in Denmark read books, despite publishing growth
File photo: Morten Germund/Scanpix 2017

The number of 30-39 year-olds who regularly read novels and short stories has fallen by ten percent since 2010, according to a report published on Tuesday by the Ministry of Culture’s Books and Literature Panel.

A number of other findings also pointed to a reduction in the amount of literature being devoured by people in Denmark.

“A record number of books are being published, but at the same time, there are fewer keen readers. That could be the result of a number of factors and trends which we will need to follow closely,” minister for culture Mette Bock said in a press statement.

The report also found that people with high levels of education – normally the keenest reading demographic – are reading less than in the past.

But although fewer are reading novels, audio books are seeing a surge in popularity.

232,453 audio books were borrowed from Danish public libraries in July 2018, the highest number on record.

Use of ebooks is also growing, although only 3.5 percent of the population said that they read daily or almost daily using the digital format, the study found.

Anne-Marie Mai, a member of the Books and Literature Panel, said that books are facing stiff competition from streaming services and social media.

“There’s hardly any doubt that the growing and more comprehensive media selection of the last decade is making the battle for consumers’ attention a tougher one, in which time for reading is under pressure from other options like film and television streaming and social media,” Mai said.

A British study has shown that the average time spent on media and communication by adults in 2016 was 11 hours per day.

Although Danes were found to be spending less time reading novels and short stories, textbooks did not see a similar fall-off in usage, according to the new report.

The Ministry of Culture’s Books and Literature Panel was established in 2014 in order to follow trends relating to the market for books. The panel consists of seven researchers from the literary field.

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INTERVIEW: ‘I talk about the things you are not supposed to talk about’

Born amid the horrors of war in Iraqi Kurdistan, Danish author Sara Omar now uses her voice to denounce violence inflicted on women in the name of reactionary Islam, a "calling" that has left her living under police protection.

INTERVIEW: 'I talk about the things you are not supposed to talk about'
Danish author Sara Omar. Photo: Thibault Savary / AFP

“I broke the taboo. I talk about the things you are not supposed to talk about. If I don't do this, who will?” the 34-year-old tells AFP in an interview in Copenhagen.

Her first novel “Dead Washer” sold more than 100,000 copies in Denmark when it was published in 2017, a literary feat in the country of 5.8 million where it was hailed as the “MeToo of Muslim women.”

It has since been translated into several languages, including Norwegian, Swedish and French.

In her writing and when she speaks out publicly, Omar describes abuse inflicted on women and children behind closed doors — rapes, beatings, female genital mutilation and so-called honour crimes.

Her depictions have angered a small fringe in Muslim societies and required her to now live under 24-hour police protection.

Her bestseller tells the story of a girl named Frmesk, which means “tear” in Kurdish.

It follows her from her birth in Sulaymaniah, Kurdistan, in 1986 — just like Omar — to a hospital bed in Denmark in 2016 where she meets a medical student, also a young Kurdish woman, who dreams of breaking free from her overly controlling father but doesn't dare.

Omar says that many Muslim women — especially in the Nordic countries, where they often find themselves caught between the liberalism of their adopted country and their parents' conservative values — have approached her to thank her for bringing their sufferings to life through Frmesk.

“My books have started a very quiet movement among women, especially women of Muslim background in Scandinavia, because they identify themselves with the topics and the characters in the novels,” Omar says.

“A reaction that affected me, and touched me in a way that I started crying, was from a woman between 45 and 50 years old. She came to me and she whispered in my ear: 'Thank you for giving me a voice'.”

Photo: Thibault Savary / AFP

As combative as her protagonist, Omar now refuses to speak about her personal life, “due to her security situation and since her words can bring about severe consequences,” according to her assistant.

What is known from earlier interviews is this: After several years in refugee camps, Omar came to Denmark at the age of 15, like Frmesk. They also share a distinctive look — a streak of white in their jet-black hair.

Omar has previously revealed that she has been married, is “the mother of a murdered girl” and began writing Frmesk's story while in a psychiatric ward after several suicide attempts.

For her, writing books is not “a dream.”

“I see it as a calling, because I have sacrificed everything for it,” she says with a fiery look in her eye, which gives way to a melancholic smile as she refers to her security situation.

While she calls herself an “agnostic Muslim”, the author is not out to criticise Islam as such and says her message is universal. 

“Any monotheistic religion has a dark side and a light side. Islam also has this dark side but it is still up to interpretation. It's all about who is holding the book,” she says.

In a country preoccupied with immigrants who don't assimilate and which is still recovering from the explosive Mohammed cartoons scandal, Omar's ardent defence of freedom of speech has been warmly welcomed in Denmark.

“As long as we have other people who are threatening authors and people fighting for the right to use words… then we have a problem,” she says.

Omar isn't done telling Frmesk's story.

A sequel was published in 2019, “Shadow Dancer”, it too the recipient of literary prizes in Denmark.

“I'm not finished with Frmesk's story because I think she's more than an abused child and an oppressed woman. She's more than that. She's a fighter and I need to write the rest of the story,” she says.

Omar is currently studying for a Master’s degree in Political Science, and is translating her own books into Kurdish and Arabic, which she plans to publish at her own expense to avoid any censorship.

By Camille Bas-Wohlert

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