Why don’t Romanians read more?

Paula Erizanu

More than half of Romanians haven’t read a book in the past year, according to the National Statistics Institute. There are about 25 million Romanian speakers in the world, compared to ten million Hungarians, but the average print run for a Hungarian novel is three thousand, while for a Romanian novel it’s less than half that. Why don’t Romanians read more?

The outdated school curriculum is one answer. There are sixteen writers on the national curriculum for the baccalaureate exams and they are all dead, white and male. The most recent, Marin Sorescu, was born in 1936 and died in 1996. When contemporary writers visit schools, especially in rural areas, some students are surprised that living authors even exist.

A number of state-sponsored literary festivals across the country are trying to change this. The biggest of them, which had its 11th edition in October, is Filit (the International Festival of Literature and Translation) in Iași. It has featured such international stars as Richard Ford, Svetlana Alexievich, Markus Zusak and Olga Tokarczuk, and brings together tens of thousands of spectators at more than a hundred events every year. ‘Literature has an image problem in Romania,’ Filit’s director, Lucian Dan Teodorovici, told me. ‘It’s perceived as elitist and boring. Our festival managed to make reading “cool”.’ Florin Lăzărescu, part of the Filit team, too, said that he thinks of the festival as a ‘show’.

Filit also arranges for writers to visit schools, and students vote for the winner of the High School Students’ Prize (Premiul Liceenilor) from a shortlist provided by the organisers. A group of students I spoke to ahead of a visit from the Icelandic writer Ana Olafsdottir told me they often read books only after meeting the authors.

It’s no coincidence that Filit takes place in Iași, which has a population of over 300,000 and a good university. It recently became part of Unesco’s Creative Cities Network and was among the top three Romanian towns in terms of book sales even before the festival.

Still, the much smaller town of Bistrița, which has no university and a population of 100,000, managed to attract audiences of over a hundred every night for an international poetry festival at the synagogue and a newly renovated cultural centre. It helps that two of the organisers are the popular local writers Dan Coman and Marin Mălaicu-Hondrari. The director of the Bistrița festival, Gavril Țărmure, was on a panel at the International Literature and Translation Festival in Timișoara (FILTM). He said he was delighted with the young audiences at Bistrița, but also noted that ‘the public is the same for all the arts, and it is much bigger for international artists than for Romanian ones.’

Țărmure’s observation is reflected in Romanian publishing, which, unlike Western European markets, is dominated by translations from English rather than by local writers. Mircea Cărtărescu, the best known living Romanian author, has only recently been able to earn a living from his writing, largely thanks to his incredible success across Latin America. Other writers drop Romanian for a Western language as they emigrate, in search of bigger markets. Eugen Chirovici, for example, wrote The Book of Mirrors in English. Since it was published in 2017 it has been translated into 39 languages and adapted into a Hollywood film starring Karen Gillan and Russell Crowe, to be released next year.

Beyond Romanian writers’ ability to reach foreign markets, any hope of improving Romania’s low reading figures has to begin with the underfunded education system. According to one recent report, more than 40 per cent of children aged between six and fourteen are ‘functionally illiterate’.

‘The great absences at festival events are the teachers and professors of the arts,’ according to Robert Șerban, the president of FILTM. The starting salary for a teacher is 2400 lei a month (around 500 euros), while a teacher with forty years’ experience earns around 4200 lei, less than the average salary in Romania. Teachers took industrial action just before exams last summer. The strike was suspended after the government promised to raise their salaries from 1 January. They were also given vouchers for books or technology for their self-development.

But many children don’t have access to new books. Since the fall of communism in 1989, half of Romania’s libraries have been closed. While regional libraries are better equipped, school libraries haven’t acquired new books for more than 23 years.