“The outlook for print among the younger generation is excellent”
Is it true that young people no longer read books? No, says Dr. Christine Lötscher. “Printed books will be able to hold their own against digital competition among the younger generation – if the book industry remembers its unique qualities and remains innovative.”
The Swiss literary scholar has been researching children’s and youth media for years. In an interview with “Panorama”, she discusses some of her findings, which are reassuring for the graphic arts industry.
“Panorama”: Can you remember the first book you ever read?
That’s not an easy question to answer. When I was very young, I wasn’t at all interested in reading. As a young child, I wanted to listen and there were many people who read books to me – my parents, my grandparents and my godmother. I was especially fascinated by the children’s book “Heidi”. Our teacher at the kindergarten also told us exciting stories as well, so I never felt the need to read myself. During primary school, I spent a year and a half in the USA because my father was doing some training there. And that’s when I began to read myself – in English. I must have devoured a hundred girls' mystery stories and it was a huge drama when I was told I wasn’t allowed to take them back to Switzerland with me.
How important was reading books (or hearing them read) for you when you were young?
When I was a child, reading aloud together in our family was very important – as was listening to cassettes, audiobooks and radio plays. I also had a large library of children‘s books. As I grew older, reading took on an entirely different meaning for me and became its own world.
At what age did you go from being a listener to an active reader?
When I was about ten, because I – like many other children at this age – wanted to know what was going on in other people's minds. So I read a lot of non-fiction books – in English – about ancient cultures like the Egyptians and the Aztecs, as well as novels set in ancient Egypt, Ancient Rome and among the Native Americans. There's no better way to discover other worlds than by reading. You dive into another world that stays with you during your day-to-day life. Of course, after I returned I discovered German books, too, and I read ever such a lot. Reading was the most important thing to me when I was young. Knowing that there was a book to return to every day where you could experience the world and its rhythms more fully than everyday life was very important to me. No other medium is capable of doing this – especially not a video game.
How important is reading books for today’s young people?
For young people who enjoy reading, digging into whatever they’re reading is just as important as it was for previous generations. It allows a world to unfold gradually in their minds – at their own pace and with plenty of room for them to have their own thoughts. You can set a book aside whenever you want and imagine how the story might continue, and what you would do if you were one of the characters. When you read you’re entirely on your own, free from your everyday world. That’s something no medium other than a book can do.
Do young people read less now than they used to?
Two things often get mixed up in the discussion about the decline of reading. Young people have never had to read as much as they do nowadays. Nearly every computer activity requires them to read. You need to be a fast reader if you play video games. So when people complain that young people don’t read any more, they mean they don’t read books, especially literary books. But the annual JIM study on the daily media habits of young people in Germany shows that the use of printed books has remained stable, even in the social media era. For the past two decades, around 40 percent of young people between the ages of 12 and 19 have regularly read a printed book.
How does this 40 percent compare to the use of different forms of print media and electronic media?
97 percent of young German-speakers between the ages of 12 and 19 use the internet daily. The figure for printed newspapers is almost half that – at 21 percent. It’s even lower for printed magazines – at 14 percent. I find it interesting that young people find their regional daily newspaper to be the most trustworthy among print media.
Are newspapers and magazines less popular than books among young people because they are increasingly reading the news online?
Yes. I’ve noticed this without being able to prove it empirically: newspapers (or their online versions) are now mainly read online because their formats, which often include video, better serve the needs of their readers than reading a newspaper or a magazine. As a result, an entire generation is turning away from these two print segments and the average age of readers of newspapers and magazines is rising.
To what extent does education play a role in the reading habits of young people?
It is (and always has been) known that the more educated a family is, the more its children will read – so it is a question of education. But we shouldn’t forget that, while we often think every young person in the 1950s read, this was, of course, definitely not the case. For many centuries, only an educated minority read. Only starting in the 19th century did the number of readers increase, but even then the figure was not high. In all the commotion about the current level of reading, we shouldn’t act as if in the past everyone was sitting around the fireplace reading.
What role do books play for young people given the current diversity of media?
Young people are attracted to multimedia because they want to experience stories from all sides. Multimedia research has shown that reading results in certain qualities that do not occur with other media – such as the ability to empathize with a character, something you can’t do with a film. In a literary text, you’re free to put yourself in the mind of other characters, to see the world from a different perspective and to read the text at your own rhythm. A book doesn’t simply unfurl itself like a film; instead, readers set the pace themselves. The reader is in charge, with the ability to read more slowly, faster and diagonally, while a film simply runs. Reading has these qualities – but it doesn’t need all of them...
...because there are wonderful stories on electronic channels as well?
Yes. If you enjoy a good story, you can, of course, find something on Netflix. I see this with my own children as well – two girls, both of whom enjoy reading. They experience wonderful stories via various streaming services, Netflix series and YouTube videos, where they see a direct reflection of their own world and where they hear YouTubers talk about what they do in their daily lives. While reading may have performed this function in the past, nowadays other media can tell stories as well.
"Printed books will be able to hold their own against digital competition among the younger generation."
Dr. Christine Lötscher
As a complement to reading or to an increasing extent more important than reading?
I would say complementary. For example, a lot of young people read Harry Potter books even though they’ve already seen the movies. Or they’ll read a novel for which there is also a video game.
And how do you get as many people as possible to read books?
To me, it’s important that those who feel a need for the book as a medium be able to discover this for themselves. Of course, there are also sociocultural aspects as well. Reading is not simple because literature is its own symbolic world and not simply a jumble of letters. You need to understand how a story works. You have to learn this – and it’s difficult. That’s why it’s important to start reading books early on as a child. Every child must have the opportunity to discover this world for themselves.
Have you discovered any trends on the market for young adult books?
First, the market for young adult books is generally good. And second, there is a trend that should make companies that manufacture equipment for the graphic arts industry happy: The market for picture books – which, interestingly, don’t work very well with apps – is flourishing. In this segment, publishers are being bold and pushing the boundaries artistically – for both children and adults. I get the sense that digitalization is now increasingly focusing on picture books. There are a number of great picture book publishers that are very innovative. For older children and young people, fantasy books are also a trend – as are comics (Donald Duck books are now cult classics) and graphic novels because these books thrive on the tension between text and images.
Do you view digital media generally as poison for printed media?
No, I don't. And we now know based on a number of studies that media usage is complementary. As Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière write in their 2010 book, “This Is Not the End of the Book,” there have been fears before that no one would look at cathedrals anymore because they could now see pictures of them in books. But this didn’t happen – just like the theater and the cinema didn’t disappear because of television. I believe people are happier when there is a larger offering of media.
In your youth media research, have you seen a difference between girls and boys?
It’s always tricky to generalize. However, boys tend to enjoy reading less because they need to move about after a long day at school and there is a cultural tradition of boys competing against one another in games. By contrast, girls are more competitive when it comes to school. For them, school is the main concern and they’re more eager to get good grades – so they read more.
Like TV shows, a lot of young adult novels are published as series. Where did this come from?
It isn’t a new phenomenon. Especially when children are practicing their reading skills, series are ideal because they make it easier to start new books – since they already know a lot about them. I know some young female readers who started reading fantasy series at the age of 16 and are now studying literature.
You mentioned fantasy. A considerable portion of the literature aimed at young people is in this genre. Why is that?
So-called realistic literature often aims to teach young people something and make them better human beings. They defend themselves against this by looking to other books – in which the conflicts among the characters allow them to think about existential questions on their own. Another reason why fantasy is so alluring is that it always revolves around major questions – good and evil, life and death, love and passion. This surprises adults sometimes. But these are precisely the themes that young people want to deal with. Just watch how conversations at the family dining table quickly become discussions about basic principles. Another thing that makes fantasy so attractive is that young people learn from it, but this learning is not controlled by adults.
"There are, of course, online and e-comics. But I believe that comics – like graphic novels – have an excellent future in print."
Dr. Christine Lötscher
Are today’s fantasy novels the fairy tales of yesterday?
Fairy tales and fantasy stories do, of course, have something in common. In fact, fantasy stories get a lot of their ideas from fairy tales. And like fairy tales, fantasy stories can be read a thousand different ways.
What role do classic fairy tales – such as the Brothers Grimm – play for today’s young people?
I look at fairy tales in multimedia formats and I’ve noticed that many young people know fairy tales from Disney films. By contrast, the less familiar Brothers Grimm tales are not widely known. Whether these fairy tales are still read by (or to) children often depends on their parents. In addition, many fairy tales have been successfully adapted – with simpler text – in picture books for smaller children.
Comics remain enormously popular with children. Is this form, with its mix of drawings and simple text and thus easy readability, especially suited for print?
I would say so. There are, of course, online and e-comics. But I believe that comics – like graphic novels – have an excellent future in print, and there are a lot of new publications in this segment as well. We live in a world where both text and images are important. Comics are a good medium that combines these two elements. Some people say we’re living in an era of images. While this is true, there continues to be a lot that is communicated via text.
As a researcher, you need to read a lot for your profession. Well-known German neurologist Dr. Hans-Georg Häusel believes that it is better to learn from books. “When it comes to comprehension, print performs better than electronic media,” he said in an interview with “Panorama”. Do you agree with him – especially based on your experience with students?
In my own, purely personal experience, I cannot confirm this view unconditionally. But I do hear from many students that while they can read on a tablet, reading on a screen is exhausting. But I have the feeling that this has to do with their eyes – that it’s more strenuous to look at a screen. Where I do agree with what Hans-Georg Häusel says, though, is that when you read an article in a book, you can flip through the pages, go back a few pages much more easily and ask “What did the author really mean?” This makes reading in a printed book easier.
And what do you think personally?
I always read academic material on a computer because I don’t want to print it out for environmental reasons. If I can read something open access in the library, I don’t print out a hundred pages. Or I buy – when this is an option – the printed book or borrow it from the library. I much prefer working with books because it’s easier to get an overview. You can add notes, while reading and writing at the same time on a computer is more arduous. I will admit, though, that the e-book has one great advantage: I can enter a search term and find it quickly.
As a youth media researcher how do you come up with your results?
I do not work quantitatively, but rather through literary and cultural analyses. In other words, I analyze books – for example, how are they told? I also rely on the research conducted by others – such as the JIM study. In addition, I look at the children’s and young adult book market and try to keep up with trends in this area. I started as a student of German literature, but now I look at all media culture because the entire media world is now converging. I look at texts, films and TV series, but I also try to keep up with what’s happening on YouTube. However, I don't investigate children who read, so I don't conduct empirical research into reading, but instead I analyze the media itself.
Speaking of results, the latest figures from the USA and England point to a decline in the share of e-books. Is this also true for young people in German-speaking countries, where you do most of your research?
Unlike with adults, e-books have never really caught on among the younger generation in German-speaking countries. In Germany, the share of e-books among young people was just 4 percent in 2018, according to the JIM study. I have a typical example in my family: My two daughters received an e-reader as a gift from their grandparents, but they lie around the house unused. I’m the only one in the family who uses an e-book – for research purposes.
" I’m thinking, for example, about high-quality art books or the picture books. These books will never lose their audience."
Dr. Christine Lötscher
A study conducted in the UK two years ago revealed that just 8 percent of parents of children aged 8 and younger are unconcerned about their children reading e-books, while 80 percent have concerns. There are also figures from the USA showing that parents are increasingly reading printed books instead of e-books. Do you think that reflects a retro trend for print – and if so, how do you explain this?
In German-speaking countries – and here things are a bit different from the USA – we have a traditional educated middle class culture. Many parents want to give their children the opportunity to discover the book as a medium, as something valuable and as a longstanding European value. They have the feeling that books are connected with education – not only because of what is in them, but also because books are a cultural asset. Parents and grandparents are very willing to dig a bit deeper into their wallets for high-quality books. Most kids eventually get a smartphone sooner or later. But a lot of parents would prefer them not to be staring at a screen all the time.
What is the outlook for print among the younger generation in your view?
Excellent! Print will even out and it’s not – as the 40 percent figure among young people I cited before shows – losing ground everywhere. I am confident that books will reveal even more unique qualities. I’m thinking, for example, about high-quality art books or the picture books I mentioned before. These books will never lose their audience.
You say “high-quality”. Does this mean that the graphic arts industry will have to continue being innovative, especially in the area of books?
Absolutely. I am convinced that innovative books have a much greater future than those that are focused on Netflix. Innovative books include, for example, picture books that have text and image compositions or that play with formats, or novels that are told from the perspective of different characters. Publishers would make a great mistake if they thought “Young people love Netflix, so we’ll make Netflix in book form.” This wouldn’t work because literature has very different media options than TV and it should take advantage of these. Literature involves not only exterior tension, but above all empathy.
Then how do you explain the enormous success so many YouTubers have had as book authors?
These books revolve around people, not the way the story is told. Young people watch these YouTubers and when they publish books they want to read them. So there is an element of celebrity to it – and I think it’s great when young people discover books in this way.
So you think printed books will be able to hold their own against digital competition?
No doubt – if the book industry remembers its unique qualities and remains innovative.
And what role does reading books for pleasure play for you now, in addition to the professional reading you do?
I still really love reading. Sitting down in the evening, focusing and reading a book for a while is still one of life’s great pleasures for me. I’m currently reading a genre known as nature writing – a sort of travel literature in which authors talk about their travels in the natural environment and their experiences with animals. There is a trend in literature to use poetic language to ask questions like “What is our interior existence” and “What is around us?” – and I find this incredibly exciting. But I also enjoy reading detective stories.
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Forty-nine-year-old Swiss citizen Dr. Christine Lötscher is an adjunct instructor of popular literature and media at the University of Zurich (Switzerland) whose main research focuses on children’s and youth media. She studied German literature and language, general history and church history at the University of Zurich and German studies at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich.
She has been the culture editor at “TagesAnzeiger” (the daily newspaper with the highest number of subscriptions), a freelance literature critic and cultural journalist for several newspapers and radio and TV stations, and she is the (co-)author of numerous books and essays about children’s and youth media.
She has been employed in the academic field since 2005. She earned her PhD from the University of Zurich in 2014 with a dissertation entitled “The Magic Book as a Concept: Reading, Media and Knowledge in Contemporary Fantasy Novels for Young Adults”" (published by Chronos Verlag, Zurich, 2014