We (the English that is) share our patron saint’s day with the Catalans. On Sant Jordi’s day Barcelona fills up with bookstalls and flower sellers. The men give their women flowers and the women their men books. I lived in Barcelona a few years ago and found the whole thing charming but also a bit sexist. How typically Latin, I thought, that the men would receive something cerebral whereas the women would get something decorative. Recently though, I’ve revised my opinion. Far from being an example of old-fashioned chauvinism, the Catalans are actually indulging in some progressive social engineering.
A report by the Reading Agency commissioned for World Book Night states that almost 30 per cent of men have not read a book since leaving school. I can well believe this. My day job is in publishing where it is received opinion that men do not read fiction unless it’s Lee Child. The vast majority of fiction is marketed to women. Furthermore the sales of the sort of non-fiction that men used to read, so-called narrative non-fiction, Longtitude, Cod, etc are in steep decline (annoyingly this is exactly the sort of book that I am writing at the moment). Nobody knows exactly why this might be but I suspect it’s something to do with smartphones. Next time you’re on a train you’ll see this, the women will have books or kindles, the men will be fiddling with their phones.
So how do we reverse this trend? The Guardian have come up with a list of books that will get men reading again. Oddly they have included Finnegans Wake – a novel that would put many people off reading for life. A better idea would be to take a leaf out of the Catalan handbook. In one fell swoop we would get men reading, find a point for St George’s Day, celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday and, most importantly, prop up the ailing publishing industry.
Henry Jeffreys is the author of Empire of Booze, a history of Britain told through alcohol
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