Booked Up

How the Brits Get Into Books

British culture really encourages reading. We could learn from it.

By - Feb 14th, 2014 11:44 am
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I had the great good fortune to start the New Year in London, one of my favorite places in the world. (Next to Milwaukee, of course!) I was struck, as I always am, by the multitudes of people reading in public. On the Tube, in parks, in restaurants, almost anywhere you look, people are reading. Now we might expect this from a well-educated populous in the cradle of the English language, but I believe the British have taken many steps to assure this situation. And it starts with their many and various book shops.

Blackwell's. Photo from Blackwell's website.

Blackwell’s. Photo from Blackwell’s website.

Perhaps only in New York City is there a greater concentration of every kind of book outlet. London is known for mega-stores like Waterstone’s (Europe’s largest book store) and tiny specialty shops like Hatchard’s (an antiquarian’s delight). There is Blackwell’s for academic books, Foyles for infinite browsing on five floors, and the venerable Stanford’s for travel literature. And mixed among these are dozens of second-hand and rare book purveyors. It’s enough to make you buy a steamer trunk for your purchases!

London is a very densely populated city (as is New York) and you would expect a large number of stores to meet the needs of a well-educated clientele. However, the same is true for much of the United Kingdom, from small town to village. This is because of a culture that has been created to foster reading. A reading nation buys books and writes them, too. There is much we can learn from the U.K.’s concerted efforts to make this happen.

A book culture is supported in the media of Great Britain. Television, magazines, and newspapers all have book reviews and book advertisements. While the United Kingdom publishes half the books the U.S. does in a year, we have to remember that it is a much smaller population that consumes these volumes. The two countries have approximately the same literacy rates – 99% reading and writing by age fifteen, according to World Fact Book. The real differences come with the number of books and periodicals published for the lower third of readers. Instead of concentrating on the literati, English publishers churn out lots of easy reading for a variety of interests.

American publishers and book sellers would do well to take heed of this model. Mass-market paperbacks, novellas, graphic novels, and manga (Japanese-styled comics) abound in British convenience stores, groceries, and pharmacies. Libraries and the best book shops also stock (and often highlight) these kinds of entertaining reads. One example of this kind of broad marketing is the plethora of “Dr. Who” novelizations and spin-offs. With so many choices at every reading level, no wonder so many Brits read every day!

We need to support our precious book stores and libraries, but we also need to encourage everyone we know to indulge in the reading habit. Buy books. Lend books. Give books. Share sci-fi, and Westerns, and mysteries, and comic books, and romances with your friends, family, and colleagues. Ask people what they’re reading. If they don’t have an answer, make sure you lend them a book they’ll like. Our precious reading culture has to be nurtured and it begins with each of us and our local book store.

Upcoming Book Events:

Saturday, February 15 (7:00 PM): Milwaukee Poet Laureate Reading Series: John Koethe and John Godfrey at Woodland Pattern Book Center, 720 East Locust Street, Milwaukee. (414) 263-5001

Tuesday, February 18 (7:00 PM): Ilsa J. Bick, author of “White Space: Book One of the Dark Passages,” with a talk on the psychological underpinnings of her young adult novels at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee. (414) 332-1181

Wednesday, February 19 (7:00 PM): Sheila Turnage, author of “The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing” at Boswell Book Company.

Thursday, February 20 (7:00 PM): Michael Hainey, author of “After Visiting Friends: A Son’s Story” at Boswell Book Company.

Send your book club picks and author event information to me at  And good reading!


0 thoughts on “Booked Up: How the Brits Get Into Books”

  1. Anonymous says:

    My parents came from Ukraine (which is supposed to have the highest percentage of readers of anyplace in the entire world!) and I started reading in two languages at age two-and-a-half, so of course I encourage reading, and thank you for encouraging it too (and lucky you, to start off this wonderful year in London)!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Christina, thanks for the great post. You are truly blessed to be bilingual. I wish more young people were.

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