Hungarians used to be very proud that theirs was a reading nation. An incredible number of titles appeared and all of them, by our standards, in a large printing run. And they were dirt cheap. In front of me is a highly specialized history book, a collection of essays on Hungary in the Habsburg Monarchy. It appeared in 3,000 copies–in a country of 10 million. Its price was 53 Ft. in 1975. Given the salaries in those days, it cost practically nothing. The interesting thing was that these books were actually sold. If you didn’t rush to buy that book on history you really coveted, you couldn’t find it anywhere within a few days. It was sold out. One can wonder whether these books just ended up on bookshelves or whether they were actually read, but that is another question. It was chic to have lots of books in the house.
Here are some statistics. In 1980 a total of 69,321,000 copies of different titles were published; in 1998 less than half this number. One might hypothesize that the increasing price of books was responsible for this decline. In the socialist regime books were heavily subsidized. In fact, the subsidies were so great that the only export-import company dealing with books, "Kultura," sold books published in Hungary to foreign customers at a much higher price than the price in forints. When I complained, I was told that these books were subsidized to enrich the cultural level of Hungarians living in the country. Hungarians living abroad were in a different category and could not enjoy the subsidy. Also, as I learned from personal experience, you could not leave the country with more than three books purchased in forints. It is clear from these and similar stories that the government subsidies were substantial.
But to return to the question of reading habits. If book prices increased but the people’s desire to read remained the same, one might surmise that libraries would see more traffic. But that is not the case. In 1980 there were 2,200,000 library card holders, in 1997 only 1,431,000. One could perhaps blame the lack of free time for the decline. But today fewer people work than before 1990 and those who do have 50 minutes more free time than twenty years ago. Here there is a positive correlation, but to television viewing, not reading. In 1986-87 people spent 106 minutes a day watching television; in 2000 164 minutes. According to the latest polls, an average Hungarian reads only 0.8 books a year.
Sándor Friderikusz, a very talented TV personality, has taken an important step to stimulate reading in Hungary. He started a book club (along the lines of Oprah’s). Every month he will choose a book that he encourages his viewers to read. He also urges them to send their reactions to his homepage, promising to publish the best.
His first pick was András Nyerges’s new autobiographical book entitled Voltomiglan. Unfortuantely, the title is a wordplay and untranslatable. In any case, it is a fascinating family remembrance from perhaps the most awful two years of modern Hungarian history: 1944-45. Nyerges was only four-five years old at the time but even at this age one can remember a lot if the surrounding events are truly dramatic. I am a bit older than Nyerges, but I also remember a great deal from those days. And my experiences were nothing like those of Nyerges. Living in Budapest in limbo (the mother was of Jewish origin, the father Catholic), going through heavy bombardments, months of siege, hunger, months of darkness in the cellar and when at last they get out of cellar they find that one wall of their apartment is gone. In the middle of the winter. The apartment which was small even for them now has to house the two Jewish grandparents who just arrived from the ghetto. The maternal grandparents lived on the other side of the Danube and there were no bridges left. The Germans had blown them up. But even if they could have crossed the river, there would have been nowhere to go. Their apartment was completely gone. One remembers such things vividly.
I couldn’t put the book down and other people told me the same. As a result of Friderikusz’s efforts Nyerges’s book is selling rapidly. In Budapest one cannot find a copy left in the bookstores. Friderikusz had a fascinating program where he invited Nyerges, three readers, a historian, and a psychiatrist. The meeting took place in the courtyard of the apartment house where the Nyerges family lived in those days. Anyone who understands Hungarian should look at the video which is available on the internet. it can be found here: http://www.atv.hu/friderikusz/?q=node (June 5. Friderikusz könyvklubja) I understand that the book will soon appear in German. The title will be: Nicht vor dem Kind (Not in front of the child). Let’s hope that there will also be a good English translation. Until then, I highly recommend it to those who can read either Hungarian or German.