Bucharest Open Books Night aims to get Romanians reading

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romanians are among the least avid readers in the European Union, but an Open Books Night to promote reading now in its seventh year has proved a big hit.

A woman reads a book to a girl during the Night of Open Books event inside Bucharest's Arch of Triumph in Bucharest, Romania, April 23, 2019. Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea via REUTERS

This year’s event, held on Tuesday inside Bucharest’s landmark Triumphal Arch - modeled on Paris’s Arc de Triomphe - attracted thousands of visitors, from young Harry Potter fans to seasoned history buffs.

“The idea of visiting the Arch was interesting, considering it’s not generally open for visits, and I also like to read, so I think an international book day is a good idea,” said 12-year-old Ana Medeea Popa, a Harry Potter fan who came with her parents to the event that went on until midnight.

A 2018 survey by the country’s national culture research institute showed that 69 percent of Romanians had not read a single book over the last year.

But Romanian publishing house Litera, which has organized Open Books Night for the past seven years at different locations in Bucharest, says higher readership is a driver of thriving economies.

“An economy, a country can only grow if it has an educated public, and ... anywhere I look people become smarter with good teachers and books,” said Dan Vidrascu, Litera’s general manager.

“If we envisage a country with something better to say and a different trajectory, then I think the number one objective should be making the young generation better prepared.”

Tuesday’s book night was held on World Book Day, a United Nations event to promote reading and publishing.

“This is a very good step to get people to read more,” said high school student Andreea Negutu, who was more than half way through Haruki Murakami’s “1Q84”.

Inside the Triumphal Arch, a post-World War I monument, 21-year-old student Sabina Bahna joined a treasure hunt where the winners were rewarded with free books.

“I liked the location very much, it’s a good moment to showcase this monument and combining it with books is a plus, especially for people who love reading,” Bahna said.

Romania has the third-lowest rate of spending on culture in the EU, according to Eurostat data, and scores of its cities lack bookstores, libraries, museums, theaters and cinemas.

Romanians, along with Austrians and Italians, also spend less time reading each day than citizens of other EU countries, except for France, according to Eurostat - although many bookworms at Tuesday’s event might dispute that.

Vidrascu said the local book industry should aim to double book sales in Romania over the next five years, from about 100 million euros ($112 million) at present.

Book sales in the country have been rising by 5-10 percent annually in recent years, and publishing houses are adding to their catalog of titles, but state support is needed, possibly in the form of subsidizing book purchases, primarily for schools and libraries, Vidrascu said.

“It is a responsibility to pitch books that open a dialogue about the world we live in,” said Elena Marcu, co-owner of small publishing house Black Button Books, which was set up in 2016.

“That is our aim and people are reacting, sometimes slower than statistics would demand, but they are reacting.”

(This story corrects job description in paragraph 6)

Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Susan Fenton