The joy of reading leaves men on the shelf

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The Independent Online
When it comes to reading habits, women are chapters ahead of men, a survey reveals today.

The study of what Britons read - and when - found that 35 per cent of men had not read a book for pleasure for five years or more, compared to only one in five women.

The Book Marketing Ltd survey also reveals that while 47 per cent of women claimed to have finished a book in the previous fortnight, only 30 per cent of men could say the same. Reading habits differ markedly with age, according to the survey, reported in the latest issue of Cultural Trends, from the Policy Studies Institute. While only 18 per cent of those aged 15 to 24 had read a book in the week before they were questioned, the figure for people aged between 25 and 34 was 21 per cent, and 41 per cent for those over 55.

Cookery books, with Delia Smith's many titles such as Winter Collection and other books linked to television series to the fore, are the most popular type of book bought, although romantic fiction and puzzle books have the biggest volume of sales.

In 1995, for example, culinary titles were bought by 21 per cent of those who purchased a book compared to 18 per cent who bought a crime story or thriller, 12 per cent who bought a romantic novel and 7 per cent who bought a work of 20th-century fiction.

A quick look around London book stores yesterday bore out some of the findings, with a range of cooking books, romantic works and thrillers among the most popular.

Among those most prominently displayed were the Jeffrey Archer blockbuster, The Fourth Estate, Jackie Collins's Vendetta: Lucky's Revenge, Dick Francis's latest best-seller Come to Grief and an array of titles by the horror writer Stephen King and the thriller expert John Grisham.

However, there was good news for those who prefer more high-brow reads. Richard Green, manager of Dillons book store in Trafalgar Square, said that unlike some earlier Booker Prize winners, Graham Swift's Last Orders had been doing well. "It is a readable book and sold very very well at Christmas," he said.

Also selling well are "trophy" books such as Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene; titles which look good on the bookcase but which tend to be more purchased than read.

The finding that women are greater readers than men was supported by a quick survey of book buyers by The Independent.

"I think it's because women are continually trying to change and improve themselves, and are more flexible and open to new experiences," Liz Kay, a curator at the Tate Gallery, said.

Tamsin Summerson, 22, said she was aware of the difference among her friends. "If you ask a man what book they've just read they're likely to have forgotten or they will change the subject. With a woman you're more likely to get into a lengthy discussion about it."

But whichever sex you are, it is getting harder to be well-read. The number of books published has risen steadily since 1987. Then, just under 55,000 were published, compared to just over 95,000 in 1995.

Book prices have risen from an average of pounds 7.93 for a novel in the first half of 1991 to pounds 8.99 in the second half of 1995. Consumer spending on books has jumped, from pounds 755m in 1985 to pounds 1,673m in 1994.

More than half the population - 55 per cent - use libraries to borrow books, while a further 15 per cent make use of their other services, such as their music libraries, computers, references books, or newspapers.

But book stocks in libraries are declining: in 1987 there were 2.4 books per head of population in England and Wales, compared with 2.18 in 1994. Expenditure by the Department of National Heritage on libraries was cut by 13.5 per cent between 1992 and 1993.

The survey found that although nearly 30 per cent of households had a computer, only 7 per cent of the population had a multi-media capacity necessary to run CD-Roms, the computer rival to books.

Of those that did, 69 per cent used it for work and 50 per cent for game- playing, but only 24 per cent used CD-Roms for reference and 22 per cent for education. "New media are still no match for the book and new technology has not yet made any impact on people's reading habits," Rachel Dunlop, PSI research fellow, said. But she said the picture might change as books became more expensive and CD-Roms cheaper.