1. Reading between the lines

Reading between the lines


Do you like reading books? The British do. In fact a recent survey showed that reading is a more popular pastime among British adults than sex! Yet British libraries have been getting fewer and fewer visitors for the last twenty years, so just what is going on?

1n 1997, the Net Book Agreement in the UK ended. The Agreement existed between UK book shops and publishers, and fixed minimum prices for all books. With the end of the Agreement, books began to be discounted, and now they are much more affordable for British people. There is no doubt that one of the reasons for British libraries seeing fewer visitors is that books can now be so cheap to buy. Sales of books in the UK are always relatively healthy. They even go up during a recession or credit crunch, since people spend on books rather than going out to restaurants. And what do the British like to read? Well, here are a few of the most popular genres…


The UK has always been famous for its stories of magic and wizardry. There are strong cultural memories of the druids who built Stonehenge and ruled the country before the arrival of the Romans or Christianity. Shakespeare wrote fantastical plays like The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. JRR Tolkein is credited with creating the modern genre of fantasy, with The Hobbit in 1937, but there was also a lot of fantasy in the work of H.G. Wells, who published The Time Machine in 1895. And the tradition of British fantasy is still alive and kicking. Everyone’s heard of JK Rowling and the humorous Terry Pratchett. You might also have heard of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy too, as the first book was made into the film The Golden Compass, starring Nicole Kidman. In fact, the fantasy genre is so popular that new sub-genres like “metaphysical fantasy” and “steampunk” are now emerging.

Chic Lit

Chic Lit refers to books that are written about and for modern women. The most famous example is probably Bridget Jones’s Diary, by the British author Helen Fielding. Titles in this genre are usually about complicated love lives, modern working life and trying to remain healthy. These books usually always contain humour or a ‘feel-good’ factor. In many ways, they represent escapist fantasy, but are persuasive because they deal with day-to-day topics.


The UK is known for its “detective fiction” and “murder-mysteries”. A couple of the most famous British authors in this genre are of course Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who started the Sherlock Holmes stories in 1887, and Agatha Christie, who created the detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. These characters are still popular on TV and in film. In fact, the latest Sherlock Holmes movie has just been made, and stars Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law, directed by Guy Ritchie. Yet there are contemporary British authors of crime fiction who are also popular, and they include P.D. James, Ian Rankin and Colin Dexter.

Celebrity (auto)biographies

It seems that every minor celebrity has written a book these days. They’re not really serious authors and are simply cashing in on their “15 minutes” of fame. Many of their books are “kiss and tell” i.e. they’re only of interest to readers because of the secrets they reveal about other famous people. A number of the books are not even written by the celebrity themselves – rather, they have been written by anonymous “ghost-writers”. Even so, this genre is popular because the “celebrity culture” is well-developed in the UK.

Is the book dead? As you can see from the above, the book’s alive and well, so don’t call in Sherlock Holmes just yet. Are bookshops dying out because of websites like Amazon? Not really. The British are bibliophiles and love to browse in bookshops, particularly when there is a coffee bar within the store. So, are libraries completely disappearing in the UK? Well, it’s true that forty public libraries closed in England alone in 2007, but the others are surviving because they now offer computer access and training as well as books for borrowing. Finally, 62% of British parents read their children bedtime stories and none of us can see that tradition changing soon. So long live the book!

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