Distortions in the production of Greek books

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Umberto Eco once wrote that the only question that visitors to his library ever asked was "Have you read all these books?" In Greece the question should be tweaked to "Who reads all these books?"

Figures from the National Book Center of Greece (EKEBI) reveal that in 2006 alone 9,209 titles were published in the country, an increase of 9.1 percent over 2005 and of 23.6 percent in the past five years.

Is that good news for Greek culture? More and more Greeks are reading, so does that signal an intellectual renaissance here in Greece? If only it did, but, apart from the poor performance of Greek pupils in the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment, there are some odd statistics in EKEBI's survey. One might expect literature to be at the top of the list of titles. Yet 24.8 percent of the titles published in 2006 were on the theoretical sciences, compared with 20.7 percent for literary titles.

Have Greeks suddenly got into sociology, Heidegger and globalization, or are publishers bringing out books without business criteria?

In fact, there is a lack of Greek titles in the social sciences. Classic texts are absent and presumably an effort is now being made to fill the gap. On the other hand, publishers are businesspeople. Despite the zeal for their trade many of them still possess, the entire market cannot suddenly be displaying a preference for books that sell rather than potential best-sellers.

The answer is probably to be found in the textbooks that are given to students. Here the state causes the distortion in the market, a distortion that may have positive outcomes for some. It is good that Wittgenstein's notes are published in Greek, even if the translator is the only person who reads it. It should exist, if only as a reference book.

But with all this frenetic output of books, some things go awry. More and more doctoral theses from Greek universities are being published, funded by the State Scholarship Fund. These naturally belong to the public sphere and to the website of the National Documentation Center (EKT), when they are useful. A dissertation on local place names, for instance, is not going to be read; it's a reference work, which is useful in electronic form but not as a bulky printed volume that will only sell to school or university libraries.

The absurd cycle of statism is apparent in the publishing industry. The state subsidizes the production of knowledge in the form of scholarships. The state buys the products in the form of books, and some intermediaries (publishers) profit while a vast number of interested parties (researchers, journalists and scholars) are essentially excluded.

To avoid any misunderstanding, it is good for books to be published, even with state subsidies. But it would be better for everyone concerned if they came out on the Internet, at least in the case of dissertations.

KATHIMERINI English Edition, 31/01/2008