Is it the publishers’ fault that hardly anybody reads?

Language Conference blames academia and printing houses for dire reading stats in Spanish-speaking world

Nobel Prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa speaking at the Spanish Language Conference in Panama.
Nobel Prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa speaking at the Spanish Language Conference in Panama.R. ARANGUA (AFP)

The great man who did not want to die. This subtitle to some editions of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the world's oldest surviving work of literature, sounds like a premonition, in that it captures the spirit of books in general. But 35 centuries after it was crafted, the future of reading is at stake, especially in the Spanish-speaking world. Some voices are warning that books, whether in digital or paper format, can only survive if there are still readers around, and that this endangered species runs the risk of becoming extinct unless urgent changes are made to education policies.

The crux of the matter lies in making reading a pleasure rather than a chore. But this can only be achieved if governments and the publishing industry join forces to improve and reinforce educational programs and available titles. Colombian writer William Ospina put it starkly: "The most cordial enemies of reading are the world of academia and the publishing industry."

The future lies in the past. So said experts, scholars, writers, publishers and booksellers gathered at the 6th International Spanish Language Conference that ran from Sunday until today in Panama City. But statistics paint a dire picture: readership figures in Latin America range between two and five books per capita a year, said Fernando Zapata López, director of the Regional Center for Encouraging Reading in Latin America and the Caribbean (Cerlacl). Meanwhile, the number of titles available in the region was 166,000 last year.

The situation in Spain is no better, at least compared with its neighboring countries: each Spaniard reads an average of 10 books annually despite having 100,000 new titles at their disposal every year. Clearly, there is no correspondence between sales and readership figures. The strategy has focused on selling books rather than creating reading habits.

“Opening up the windows of Spanish”

The audience's attention at the 6th International Spanish Language Conference in Panama City was focused on Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa, who began his speech by reminding everyone that the beauty of the Spanish language was the result of its blending with the native languages on the American continent at the time of the Conquistadores, as well as the evolution it has since undergone in the 22 countries where it is now spoken. That is why the author dared assert that Spanish should not close itself off to outside influences. On the contrary, he recommended "opening up the windows of the language to make it wealthier through other languages, just like Spanish makes other languages richer."

Vargas Llosa covered other subjects, such as the book industry and copyright issues. But he stressed that underlying all this was one main element: the reader. "A good reader is someone who is ready to enter into a dialogue, and who is thus open and ready for reasoned debate on public issues and social problems. Beyond that, on the strictly individual level, as pertains to personal fulfillment, a good reader is someone able to 'live by reliving himself' constantly. Like Goethe used to say: 'When you read you don't learn something, you become something.'"

The main reasons for this low readership have to do with poverty, the breakdown of the education system and erratic campaigns by governments and publishers. "Far from fostering a significant market expansion and reader creation, they tend to fall back on state purchases or at least state-induced purchases for school programs," says José Carreño Carlón, director of Mexico's Economic Culture Fund.

Governments are not prioritizing education, and that explains poor readership results, says Orit Btesh, president of the Panama Book Chamber. "There is no investment in education projects or in training programs for educators," she says.

César Antonio Molina, a former culture minister and current director of the Madrid foundation Casa del Lector, agrees: "It is the kind of government action that requires far-sightedness and planning on a strategic, rather than cosmetic, level."

In Spain, only 63 percent of people read at least one book a year, reflecting the lingering effects of the illiteracy levels of old. "There was never any infrastructure for reading in place. Library networks are a recent thing," says Antonio María Ávila, director of the Federation of Publishing Associations of Spain (FGEE).

Book readership coincides with newspaper readership, says Juan Luis Cebrián, president of Grupo PRISA, the parent company of EL PAÍS. "The foundation for everything else is education and a strategic change to encourage reading, whether on paper or e-books."

There is another way to get people to read, and that is getting them to write. Panama has been working on this strategy for two years, asking schoolchildren and their parents to write stories and poems. Education Minister Lucy Molinar said the only mandatory texts should be one's own, thus generating curiosity about what others nearby are writing, and thus creating a chain of reading recommendations.

"We had tried everything, everything," says Miriam Espinosa, the principal of the Carlos A. Mendoza School. Now, children are encouraged to write and read out their texts as a gateway to reading books.

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