as others see it : Book markers

One legacy of the 19th century is the exceptional range of bookshops throughout Britain, from Cornwall to Scotland. If a study by Bertelsmann is to be believed, the British were among the biggest consumers of books in 1994, with 74 per cent of the population reading books, just lower than the Dutch (77), but higher than the Germans (70), French (66), Italians (51) and Spanish (50). In total nearly 83,000 new titles appeared in 1993, compared with 41,000 in France.

The British may publish twice as many books as their French counterparts, but the output is very different. The shop window of Dillons, on Oxford Street, is eloquent in this respect: for every Cormac McCarthy novel and collection of Gore Vidal essays, how many crime stories and thrillers (Stephen King, Jeffrey Archer, Dick Francis) are there? How many sentimental bestsellers (Catherine Cookson or Barbara Taylor-Bradford)? And how many "how to" books?

There are few essays or documentary works: the press feeds the ideas debate. There is even less foreign literature: a book from India or Kenya quenches thirst for exoticism, without translation. Cultural habits play a role: "Reading is considered mainly as a diversion," explains Kukla MacLehose, a literary scout. "And it is looked down on for an author to show off his learning."

Le Monde, French daily