“Once you have read a book you care about, some part of it is always with you” – Louis L’Amour
2020 was a year marked by hardship. In my native Azerbaijan, the war in Karabakh, COVID-19, and the ensuing economic recession had a profound effect on families, friendships, properties, and our everyday lives. In these circumstances, it is perhaps unsurprising that Azerbaijanis found solace in the world of books. I have written about Azerbaijan’s commitment to literature before, but last year, publishers saw a consistent increase in the sales of books. To escape modern-day realities, if only for a moment, it seems Azerbaijanis turned to tales about other countries, other points in history, other life stories, and most noteworthy, other languages. Through analysis of Libraff’s best-selling books of 2020, we are witnessing an increased demand for foreign language books in Russian, English and Turkish, reflecting generational changes witnessed in the country.
English remained the preferred language of younger Azerbaijanis – 14 out of the 20 top-selling books in English in Libraff stores were categorised as adolescent literature. The sales of titles such as ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales’ and ‘Puss in Boots’ reveals the younger generation’s interest in European literature and indicates that many parents are trying to expose their children to English as early as possible – both at home and school. At the European Azerbaijan School, students are taught in English from the age of three.
Additionally, increased numbers of Azerbaijani schools now teach English as a second language, explaining the prevalence of titles that are often taught and read in the classroom. Libraff’s list, for instance, included Lesley Sim’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ – a retelling of William Shakespeare’s iconic comedy. One could argue that Azerbaijan’s youth are working hard to prepare themselves for employment, travel, and studies abroad.
Similarly, in 2020, demand for Turkish language books across Libraff stores rose too. Azerbaijan and Turkey share close ethnic, cultural, and linguistic ties, feeding an ever-present interest in Turkish literature within the country. The increasing popularity of Turkish TV series since Azerbaijan’s independence has also played its part in driving Turkish language book sales. Though the sales of Turkish books cross a wide range of genres, they were almost entirely sold to an adult audience. Indeed, adolescent literature comprised only one-twentieth of the best-selling Turkish books.
Most interestingly, however, is that Russian is once again the most favoured language among Azerbaijani readers, even ahead of Azerbaijani language books. Sales of Russian language books increased substantially last year across all age groups. In contrast to both English and Turkish books, read almost exclusively by adolescents or adults respectively, Russian language books bridged the generational divide and appealed to Azerbaijanis of all ages equally.
This fondness for the Russian language and literature has deep-seated roots going back to the beginning of the last century when Azerbaijan was incorporated into the Soviet Union, as is the case in other near-neighbours and former members of the USSR. Almost all educational, technical, and artistic books in the USSR were published in Russian. This meant that Russian remained the language of culture and the intellectual class for most of the 20th century in Azerbaijan. Sales of Russian language books at Libraff are a testimony to this enduring association – with seven out of the top 20 best-selling Russian books last year being ‘classics’, making it the most popular genre.
As a general rule, those with a higher level of education tend to continue reading, after they leave formal education, regularly for the rest of their lives. Despite the increasing prevalence of English language education, both within and outside Azerbaijan, and recent improvements in the quality and quantity of Azerbaijani language books, Russian will likely continue to dominate the market for the foreseeable future.
As Azerbaijan deepens and strengthens its cultural and educational ties to the West, Turkey, and Russia, my prediction for 2021 is, therefore, that this year’s best-selling books will once again be dominated by foreign language literature.
*Tale Heydarov is the founder of the European Azerbaijan School, Azerbaijan Teachers Development Centre, Libraff bookstores network, TEAS Publishing House, and until recently served as President of Gabala FC football club (Azerbaijan Premier League)