The passion for reading is still strong in Estonian
Text Petri Saraste and Susanna Poikela Photos Timo Huttunen, Susanna Poikela
Estonians are a nation of readers, there is no doubt about that. Although the country is generally regarded as an IT nation and a model for the digital age, the appreciation of books has remained high in the face of new technology.
According to Eurostat’s latest survey, Estonians spend the most time reading out of the 15 European countries surveyed. Finland ranked second in the statistics, with France surprisingly in last place.
Literacy in Estonia is also top-class. It is largely because of the importance of education as a guarantor of social progress. Those who read simply do better in life. As the late author and film director Jörn Donner once said in a TV commercial: “Reading is always worthwhile”.
Heidi Iivari, who works as a project manager at the Estonian Institute of Finland in Tartu, has studied reading and is responsible, among other things, for the operation of the institute’s library and the literature program for children and young people.
She believes that the hobby of reading intensified during the Soviet era when books were very cheap. It was a culture that was supported and with which one could maintain one’s own language. It was quite common for an Estonian to buy every book published, so Estonians had great bookshelves.
“Writers even put various hidden messages in their books so that Estonians could read about things related to their own language and nation,” says Iivari.
Today, books are roughly the same price as in Finland, but compared to the salary level, they are of course more costly than in Finland.
In Estonia, the tradition of reading is very strong even among children. The country’s school system is based on the fact that children can already read when they enter the first grade.
Reading can also give a child almost a year’s head start when starting school. The first years of a child’s life are particularly important in terms of literacy and language development. Even in infancy, reading aloud helps brain development.
In Estonia, four to five books a year are read in elementary school and up to eight a year in middle school. That’s a lot compared to Finland. So it’s no wonder that Estonia has been at the top of the Pisa study in Europe since 2019. Finland’s Pisa results, on the other hand, have weakened since 2006.
The Pisa 2018 main report was published at the beginning of this year. It turns out that literacy has a clear connection to reading “real” paper books.
The researchers were specifically worried about Finnish boys, whose attitude towards reading and schooling, in general, has become more negative in recent years.
As many as 63 per cent of Finnish boys stated that they only read if they have to. Social media and online games take up the lion’s share of young people’s time. It has been observed that electronic platforms easily lead to a skimming reading style and the production of short texts. Abbreviations and short text messages easily lead to sentences that lack capital letters, punctuation marks and compound words.
Recent studies have also found a worrying fact: not all Finns understand what they read anymore. For example, many of those who drop out of the University of Applied Sciences justify their dropping out by saying that they do not understand or know how to write correctly. Two-thirds of Finns cite a difficulty in concentrating on a book as the reason.
“In Estonia, reading the classics starts at a very young age. In high school, for example, Shakespeare and Pushkin are read. In Estonia, libraries organise various reading adventures. In schools, fiction review competitions are also held, where students compete for the best book review,” says Iivari.
In Estonia, writers are often also publishers
In Estonia, authors often publish their books themselves. Self-publishing is a very common way to publish books, and the author often handles the marketing themself. There are also many small publishing houses, and they are also appreciated.
Thanks to the annual grant from the Estonian Cultural Fund, many small publishing houses are able to operate alongside large publishing houses.
“There are many small publishing houses in Estonia that publish important works. Many of them have also been awarded. In this sense, the industry differs a lot from the Finnish one,” says Paavo Matsin, Tartu’s City Writer of the Year, whose works have also been translated into Finnish.
The small publishing house and bookstore Puänt was founded in Tallinn in 2016. Its owners Elisa-Johanna Liiv and Triinu Kööba sell books that they themselves read.
“During its five years of operation, Puänt has also organised a short story competition, the best of which were compiled into one book,” says Liiv.
The company’s fiction and non-fiction in English differs from the selection of large Estonian publishing houses and bookstores. “Now it seems that more and more small bookstores and publishing houses are being established. We, the smaller operators, work in close cooperation because literature and reading are our unifying passions,” says Kööba.