Not a reading nation
The results of our latest survey - on reading habits - confirmed what has been evident for a long time, namely that Maltese are not, generally, a reading nation. In fact, according to our survey, only 62.3 per cent said they enjoy reading; the rest, 37.7 per cent, said they do not like to read.
This after decades of compulsory education and the wide availability of reading material of all kinds - newspapers, books, periodicals, magazines - in stationeries, bookshops, and libraries. Indeed, almost 70 per cent admitted that they do not have a bookcase at home. This also explains why a section of the population, including those who have been to school, are illiterate, to all intents and purposes.
The advent of television, and scores of channels in recent years thanks to cable and satellite TV, have made inroads into reading habits, and probably accounts for the fact that so few us have time to read books. Television, of course, can be a wonderful source of education and entertainment, but it can never substitute reading as the best way to learn a language and to familiarise oneself with the classics and good literature in general and to accumulate one's cultural baggage.
It is no coincidence that many are bemoaning the fact that the standard of both English and Maltese has been dropping compared to a few decades ago, when, at a time when television was not so pervasive, reading was presumably more widespread.
The use of the Internet has also had a negative effect on reading, according to 45 per cent of those we surveyed. However, 25.7 per cent think its effect on reading has been positive. As with every other instrument, the Internet can be used properly or badly.
It is true that just over two-thirds of the Maltese count themselves as newspaper readers, and a good number read more than one newspaper every day. And increasingly, people now look up the Internet versions of various local and foreign newspapers. However, it is obvious from the results of our survey that a newspaper - and not even a daily one - provides all the reading many of us have time for. Only 36 per cent, in fact, said they read magazines in English, while just over 30 per cent said they read books in English.
Readers of magazines and books in Maltese are about half that number, at 18.2 per cent and 14.3 per cent respectively.
Then, one also has to see what types of books and magazines are read. As expected, 'love stories' top the list of books read, with 31.9 per cent, closely followed by fiction/novels. And when it comes to using lending libraries, only 17.3 per cent said they did so. This is a pity, since borrowing books from the library used to be a sure way of establishing a child's reading habits for life.
Reading habits have to be ingrained in the young, because it is in that formative stage that life-long characteristics are set. Of course it is never too late to learn, or to pick up the reading habit, but the chances are that unless a child is encouraged to read for pleasure, he or she will not do so as an adult.
In fact it is a source of some embarrassment to find oneself in some waiting room or on a bus, with most people staring into space rather than using the time at their disposal to read some book or magazine.
As in most other things in life, the first education comes from the home. If a child is brought up in an environment which is hostile to books, the chances are that he or she will not be taking up reading for pleasure either in youth or in adulthood. Indeed, the fact that so many homes in Malta lack a small library or even a bookcase should be cause for concern.
Maltese authors, publishers, and book importers and booksellers are making various efforts to promote reading. The National Book Council has just announced Lm10,000 worth of prizes for the best books published last year - a stimulus to authors, and an encouragement to readers of Maltese books. Book importers ensure that the latest English titles are available, particularly those which have inspired film hits.
Still, there is a lot more to be done to get people to read more, especially books. Schools, especially, can foster reading for pleasure in various ways - by offering prizes and other incentives, for example. And TV stations could dedicate specific programmes to books, as is done by foreign channels.
Although the benefits of reading are obvious, many in Malta are sadly unaware of them.