According to ISTAT (the Italian National Institute for Statistics), in 2010 only 46.8% of Italians said they read at least one book during the year. Of these, 44.4% read up to three books a year (because it takes the average Italian in this group four months to read a novel). Only 15.1% of the population read twelve books or more, and 9.6% (that's 2,338,000 families) say they don't even own one book.
Once, when I was at my doctor's office and had settled down for the interminable wait with Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, an old spotted toad in a grubby parka, reeking of cigarettes, sidled up to me and shouted, "My God! It would take me more than a year to finish a big book like that!" I saw no reason to doubt him.
Yesterday, I was at my neighborhood bookstore picking out a birthday gift for one of my son's classmates. I thought of buying L'Evoluzione di Capurnia (The Evolution of Capurnia Tate), but was horrified by this:
Gulp. €16,80 for a children's paperback???!!! I soon left in disgust (and with an inexplicably much cheaper Roald Dahl book instead).
€16,80--that's $23.10 for a children's paperback. In America, that very same paperback (well, in English, of course) costs $7.99. In England, £7.99. On Amazon Italy they're offering a slight discount: €14,28 ($19.63). Perhaps I didn't examine the book closely enough and the pages were made out of camel skin or ancient Egyptian papyrus or something. But a quick look round the shop had me steeped in similar dismay: Harry Potter paperbacks were €16 a pop, Tolkien's Lo Hobbit cost €15 in paperback. Small paperback early readers were €6-9 each.
Here are some other disturbing statistics: only about 10% of Italians go on to higher education (the absolute lowest of the countries surveyed); reading literacy among 15 year-olds is ranked 20th out of 27; mathematical literacy ranks 23rd out of 27. Student attitudes in the form of dislike for school, however, have Italy ranking at the top--coming in at 2nd out of 17; those that find school boring come in 9th out of the 17 countries surveyed; and as for classroom disorder, Italy is Numero Uno.
Oh, and even Greece pays its teachers more than Italy does.
To this I'd add that the ever-deepening economic sinkhole Italy finds itself in has affected public schools--which were always pretty strapped and bare-bones, let's face it--in a way that is profoundly disturbing. There is no money for supplies--that is, things like paints and paper. There is no money for soap and toilet paper for the bathrooms. There is no money for class outings, for art and music instruction or for hiring English teachers (this last is no great loss--most of them stink anyway). Schools have had to ask the parents (many of whom have already tightened their belts to the point of asphyxiation) to supply these things or the money with which to buy them. My daughter's teachers buy toilet paper for the little second-graders out of their own pockets and on their puny salaries.
And publishers dare to charge €16,80 for a children's paperback.
Suddenly all the above statistics and experiences, taken as a whole, begin to make sense to me. Here in Italy, a premium is placed on Berlusconi-esque (let's call it "Berlesque") television, a bloated bureaucracy, and the excesses of a political elite abhorrently out of touch with the reality of most citizens--while reading and education are relegated to a status just below garbage collection. I begin to understand the depth of the ignorance of the masses that kept re-electing such a pancake-faced buffoon--they're the same ones who stare vacantly at his inane and tasteless variety shows rather than stick their noses in a good book.
An Italian tragedy is more like it.
*Statistics provided herein were sourced at ISTAT, and via UNESCO and OECD at www.nationmaster.com