I once worked a project where my manager was an ethnic Estonian. He told me that during the worldwide depression of the 1930s, Estonians counterfeited postage stamps in preference to money. He said that measured by the number of books published annually per capita in the native language, Estonia was second only to Iceland in literacy. I never checked the figures from the 1930s, but today's numbers are available. By this standard, the USA, which publishes the most books overall, is again 21st, behind Israel (20) Hungary (19), Estonia (14), Iceland (2), and the Vatican City (1).
The table is at the bottom of this post. I compiled the numbers from the usual sources via Wikipedia: books published annually; and 2010 population estimates. I found it interesting to look at the number of people per book. At the Vatican City it is four. Here in the USA, it is over 1100.
Of course, it is important to read the data. The UK greatly leads the USA in books published annually, but literacy in English extends to the USA, Australia, etc. My own copies of The Wealth of Nations and The Communist Manifesto were published in the UK, but bought (used) here in the USA. The same must be recognized for Spanish and Chinese. Hong Kong and Taiwan lead in literacy, but the mainland is third in total books published. Also, literacy in ideographs can be problematic. In a college class in Japanese for Business, I learned that it is paradoxical that a nation with 99% literacy has markedly fewer readers of newspapers. To read a newspaper requires knowing about 3000 kanji characters. I do not know what it takes to be literate in Chinese in China, but 3000 characters seems about right, given that Ogden's Basic English lists 850 words.
The United Nations Development Programme and the CIA both agree that literacy is a measure of prosperity and freedom. Thus, it is telling that Arabic does not appear in the top tier. In Iran, it is Farsi. The most populous Muslim nation is Indonesia, where Arabic is a foreign language. As the home of Mecca, with its small population, Saudi Arabia could be like the Vatican City, but it is not. And that speaks to the economic and political poverty of the Arabic nations.
Spain is joined by Argentina and Mexico as a top producer of books. That compounds the magnitude of the raw numbers. So does the aggregation of the UK, Canada, the USA, and Australia. To balance that consider the linguistic isolation of leading producers such as Israel, Hungary, and Vietnam. At the other extreme, India is a nation with five official languages. Its rank (45th) does come as an aggregate of all books against total population. Still, when contrasted with China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, the internal lingusitic barriers explain much of India's poverty.
Where does all of this leave the USA? And how does the Internet impact the statistics? What does it mean to be a nation of bloggers and tweeters?
ALSO ON NECESSARY FACTS
(per 100,000 Pop)
|People Per Book|