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Jiří Trávníček: Researcher of Readership

Prof. Grzegorz Nieć / Instytut nauk o informaciji, Uniwersytet Pedagogiczny, Kraków, (Pedagogical University of Krakow), Polska

They say in Poland that Jubilees are a Krakow, Galician, specialty. And indeed, while there is no lack of them in other towns, we know how to turn them into something extraordinary in Krakow. It was so in the times of yore, and it is so nowadays. As a result, we are also in a good position to discern and appreciate celebrations of this kind in other places. Recently, I have had a pleasure to participate in the events dedicated to my dear friend, Professor Jiří Trávníček in Brno. As a dweller of Krakow, I am happy to admit that the occasion was properly handled and everything turned out splendidly as befits the “second important” city. And I am saying this as a citizen of the “second important” city in Poland: Krakow.

There is no need to introduce Jiří Trávníček to readers of „Knihovny”: librarians, bibliologists and all those who care for books. There is no need to introduce him neither to Czechs and Slovaks nor to foreigners. Long ago did his activity in the field of readership studies and a broadly conceived culture of the book cross the borders of the Czech Republic. In fact he is an international researcher who simultaneously stays clearly and deeply Czech. This is the way I have seen him, through the lens of his research and his personality, ever since our first meeting. I must also admit as a foreigner that the Czechness of Trávníček has always commanded respect and been very likeable.

Above all, Professor Jiří Trávníček is a theoretician and historian of literature as well as its practitioner as a literary critic and translator. He graduated from the universities in Brno and London and for over thirty years has been working in the Institute of Czech Literature of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic. When he entered the field of book studies, he already was a fully-fledged and recognized researcher, author of several books and numerous articles. Moreover, which is far from obvious, he tackled this field as an genuine, dedicated reader, whose motivations were not solely professional. In my opinion this expertise in literature studies and reading contributed to his great success in the field, which was earned even by his early publications. Trávníček, a specialist in literature and a critic, decided to examine what people read, what specifies reader choices and what determines them.

From the very beginning, Trávníček’s readership research has been dealing with and merging the quantitative and the qualitative. Each time, the scientist asks: ‘What? How many and how often? Why?’ The book culture, readership culture encompasses a wide array of institutions and processes which have also made it to the realm of interests of the eminent Brno Professor: such factors as home, school, library, book market, and finally other media, which are in the state of constant change, particularly intensive and deep in recent decades. Naturally, these individual aspects cannot be fully separated and likewise it is impossible to disregard historical considerations either even if we want to focus on the here and now exclusively, since “now” is turning into the past right before our eyes. Readership is built by generations and no other example shows it better than the Czech. Equally multifaceted and complex is the work of Trávníček in this area, which can be broken down to four groups. For obvious reasons, I will focus on books, leaving aside numerous and actually no less significant articles.

As of now, the first group consists of four monographs based on cyclical statistic studies: Čteme? Obyvatelé České republiky a jejich vztah ke knize (2007) (Brno 2008); Čtenáři a internauti. Obyvatelé České republiky a jejich vztah ke čtení (2010), (Brno 2011); Překnížkováno. Co čteme a kupujeme (2013) (Brno 2014), Rodina, škola, knihovna. Naš wztah ke čtení a co ho ovlivňuje (2018) (Brno-Praha 2019). Each of them hinges on a specific study and all are shaped according to a similar, slightly adjusted template that contains—in addition to introductory thoughts (rámce)—repertoire, quantitative aspect, typology of readers and books, media context, ways of acquiring texts, style and forms of reading, and motivations. Utilizing the template does not keep the author from turning each report into a unique, original monograph that focuses on a specific problem, which is often succinctly and suggestively formulated, as for instance, the titular “Překnížkováno”. It is worth noting, by the way, that the four titles themselves come together to make an intriguing argument: „Čteme? – Čtenáři a internauti – Překnížkováno”, leading to a clear conclusion: „Rodina, škola, knihovna”, which brings our attention to the sources, foundations of readership.

Trávníček’s belief, which he has expressed time and again, about a key role of the home and family as well as of a supportive influence of the school and library in shaping reader attitudes gets confirmed by strictly qualitative studies, which are given a remarkably interesting and original dimension by the author. I am referring here to reader biographies, obviously, the second link of the bibliological writings of Trávníček. This longstanding (2009–2015) and vast scholarly project has resulted in two books so far: Knihy a jejich lidé. Čtenářské životopisy (Brno 2013), published several years ago and presenting the profiles of thirty three representatives of the Czech book (or „workers of the Czech book”, as might be said in line with the Polish scholarly tradition1); and Česká čtenářská republika – generace, fenomény, životopisy (Brno-Praha 2017). The latter book is by all means exceptional and—what is especially important—innovative. I hope it will come to be an inspiration for and bring new life to the study of readership in Poland as well. The book was created on the basis of 138 interviews with a selected, representative group of the Czech Republic inhabitants. The studied sample represents the full social cross-section of the country; it includes even those who had abandoned reading or had a negative attitude to it. All the interviews were conducted according to one script which covered successive stages of life and intellectual development: home—school—adult life. The themes included the role of the close family and friends, reader practices or a lack thereof, required book reading at school and first personal choices in reading; the role of the library, teachers, other media, travels, successive places of residence and their impact on reading, etc. Other questions concerned favorite books and their significance and functions, possible instances of abandoning of a book and a later return to it, rereading of certain texts, general reading habits and rituals. In the end a “media day of the narrator”, that is, how much and what he reads, listens to and watches and for what purpose, was described. The evidence gathered in this way, combined with earlier statistical studies, allowed to create a panorama of the Czech readership at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries. The titular “generations” were, successively: the radio generation (65+), the television generation (45–64 years of age), the off-line generation (25–44) and the on-line generation (15–24). On the other hand, “phenomena” were specific types of literature, authors and their works, institutions, and diverse phenomena related to books and reading.

As already mentioned, historical considerations play a key role in readership studies. Sooner or later there arise questions that cannot be answered without plunging deeper into a more recent or distant past. This is clearly evidenced in biographies by Trávníček, while Česká čtenářská republika is surely a valuable enhancement of any list of readings in Bohemian Studies and history. Within the bibliological works of the scientist, it is necessary to mention as a separate item his texts on the book market, including Knihy kupovati... Dějiny knižního trhu v českých zemích (Praha 2014) co-authored with Zdenek Šimeček.

Our eminent Jubilarian is a truly internationalized scientist. Although this term is largely overused these days and has lost much of its impact and sense, in the case of Trávníček it is absolutely appropriate and resonates with a deep meaning. He is conversant in the old and contemporary world scientific literature, knows how to use foreign experiences and concepts in a creative way and is present on the international stage in various modes, thus spreading the Czech culture and science. This is the right place to speak about the forth group of his bibliological and other works. I mean numerous publications in foreign languages (Reading Bohemia Readership in the Czech Republic at the beginning of the 21st century, Praga 2015) as well as texts that bring foreign scientific achievements to Czechs. An outstanding example of the latter is Za textem. Antologie polské sociologie literatury (Brno-Praha 2018).

Jiří Trávníček is an exceptionally active scientist, recognized both at home and abroad. In particular, he stresses his ties with Poland and Poles, mentioning our research on readership as an inspiration. Strangely enough, despite a far worse condition of readership in Poland than in the Czech Republic, for many decades the situation in readership studies was inverse. It was, though, since—thanks largely to Trávníček—in the last dozen or so years, the initiative in this respect has also been taken by our Slavic brethren. Trávníček’s bold and open strategy of research, combined with a sound literary and sociological background, has produced significant and original results.

Jiří Trávníček turned sixty on February 9. In 2020, it is also forty years since his literary debut: his first publication in a student magazine. There was much to celebrate, then, and the Brno lot did not fail to do it grandly. There was a jubilee publication titled Čtení jako radost a dobrodružství. Jiřímu Trávníčkovi k šedesátinám, edited by Michael Fránek, Aleš Merenus, Ondřej Sládek, Barbora Svobodova,2 containing twenty eight texts in three sections: Pozdravy a konfese, Studie a interpretace, Čteni a kritika. At an official banquet, the choir of employees of Ústavu pro českou literaturu AV ČR performed a song composed in honor of the Jubilarian. Among numerous gifts, there were sixty pencils, which will surely come handy to the scientist.

English translation Dariusz Rossowski

1 A Polish collection of biograms of people dealing with books, periodically published since 1972, is entitled Słownik pracowników książki polskiej (Dictionary of the workers of the Polish book).


Dec 19, 2020