Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The land of literary Muggles

Dear Readers,

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:

Sticker shock

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


  1. wow...Italy in a nutshell...people who don't read books...have no interest in the world around them...it's a recipe for disaster..and it's sad.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Debbie. While I don't doubt that other countries in the world (America included) suffer from the ignorance and apathy of the masses, there does seem to be little real value placed on education and the future (i.e. children/young people) here. I think many Italians count more on WHO they know than WHAT they know.

  3. Anonymous9:31 AM

    Campobello, my bro-in-law wanted to "borrow" some of my books to put on his shelf for decoration. And the look on a kid's face here when you give them a rectangular shaped present at their birthday party? It's worse than when you hand them an Original Marines bag. I did manage to score a hit last year with a book entitled "Cacca", but it was mostly a picture book. The attending parents seemed to enjoy it too. Wonderful post, thanks (I think) for the stats. Papaya

  4. Papaya, you always make me scream with laughter! Books for decoration??? That takes the cake!

    Italia is typically so mired in sh*t that a book on "Cacca" is bound to resonate--good choice!

  5. Hi! I just found your blog and have to say that I agree 100% with what you wrote...I've had the same experiences. You took the words out of my mouth, it seems!

  6. Thanks for stopping by, sugoandsunshine--I'll give your blog a gander as well; it looks fun.

  7. Elizabeth, My American husband and I lived in Florence and Rome for 10 years; we chose to return to the US 11 years ago. Americans cannot understand why we tired of living in Italy and it is hard to explain. Your references to the lack of common civility and the general difficulties of living bring it all back to me. Well put. Although those who haven't done it will still never get it.
    We lived in Florence for 1 year in 1985 (returned in 1990 for the 10 years) and it was even MORE difficult - don't get me started on banking! - be grateful you are there now!
    Love your comments!
    (I found your blog via Sally Cornelison on FB.)

  8. Jody, thanks for dropping by and commenting. Funny, you left Florence the same year we arrived. It's so true what you said: so many people have stars in their eyes when it comes to Italy (la dolce vita and all that ad nauseum), and while there are many good things about it--particularly for a visitor--living here presents an entirely different reality that most people will simply never see. Welcome to the fold!

  9. Do Americans read a lot more in general? I'm not aware of stats.
    My husband and I are contemplating a move to Italy, with kids, and I'm concerned about schooling. Of course I live in Los Angeles and schools are in huge trouble (it's private or expensive neighborhoods in order to get to decent schools).

  10. Dear oilandgarlic, thanks for dropping by and commenting. I'm not aware of any concrete statistics, but I recall reading somewhere that Americans don't read as much as they used to. Still, considering the publishing industries alone in the two countries, I'd say that proportionately speaking, Americans read more.

    As far as moving here--good luck! My kids are in Italian schools and I know other expat moms--it's hit or miss. Do as much online research as you can. All the best.


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