Why don’t Swedish kids read?

In Japan, young people read on their phones. In Russia, people use the computer when distribution is scarce. In Sweden, kids don’t read.

You might have heard of cell phone novels. Since 2003 when the first chapter of pseudonym Yoshi’s Deep Love was launched, cell phone writing and reading has changed Japan’s youth culture. Titles are mainly targeted on young women and claims have even been made that the phenomenon is empowering girls in a male-dominated society. It is a way to express yourself and set the agenda for which subjects are relevant and which are not. Also, with limited space at your hands, as a writer you have to learn how to economize your writing and to be precise and to the point. Just imagine what flash fiction Hemingway could have written… (Or did, actually. The baby shoes?)

Meanwhile in Russia, people still read to an extent that shame other nations. The problem for minor publishing companies is the cost of distribution in a vast country. But for the reading audience that might not be such a big issue, says publisher Ola Wallin in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, since they are not that dependent on physical books. A lot of the reading is done on the computer: “As for reading from the screen, they are much more modern than we are. That is also a legacy from Soviet times: they are used to literature being distributed in different, alternative ways.”

So what is the situation like in Sweden? According to statistics from 2006 presented by SCB (Statistics Sweden), only 13 % of males and 29,7% of females aged 16–19 read books every week. Well, perhaps Swedish kids just aren’t into actual books? Maybe they do their reading on electronic devices instead? Not a too far-fetched idea, since Sweden ranks among the top nations in the world when it comes to Internet usage, according to World Internet Project (2010). A study from 2011 reveals that 88% of all Swedes have access to the Internet, and 69% use it daily. Among teenagers more than 80% go online every day. But what do kids do when they’re online? They play games, read and write blogs, watch videos and visit social networks. But no literature.

Sometimes I get the feeling that for Swedes, the physical book is more or less sacred. Reading from the screen, on your smart phone or a tablet just isn’t good enough. A colleague told me about an American pastor at a wedding who read the sermon from an iPad – I very much doubt that we will see that in Sweden any time soon. In schools the book is still revered, and it doesn’t do much good when the Secretary for Education Jan Björklund rants against a primary school’s initiative to provide their pupils with iPads, claiming that “students need to learn to read long texts and books” and threatening with the School Inspection if they go along with their plans.

So what’s a kid supposed to think? When literature = books = schools = old = boring? As long as literature is tainted with the dusty smell of “books”, the hopes seem slim for a mobile phone novel revolution and alternative ways of distributing literature likely won’t take off when there is no actual need for it. Let’s set our hopes on the new generation instead. When 49% of 3-year-olds use the Internet occasionally and 25% of 6-year-olds go online every day, the prospects for a bright new future can’t be too poor.

Old iPad
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