Argentina aims to rediscover a love of books
By Candace Piette
BBC News, Buenos Aires
The book scheme is beginning with the works of Jorge Luis Borges
In the cool marble and gilt splendour of one of the old cafes of Buenos Aires, a customer picks up a book from a smart new bookcase.
He takes it back to his table and begins reading while he sips his coffee.
Lovers of literature have been meeting in the cafe at the Hotel Castelar in the centre of the Argentine capital for decades.
It was, from the 1930s to the 1960s, at the heart of the city’s literary life. Great writers of the Spanish-speaking world, among them Federico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda and Julio Cortazar, visited here.
The cafe has now been chosen with 14 others, all connected with what is considered the richest period in Argentine literature, for a new city government scheme to promote reading.
The plan is to put books on display in cafes and encourage patrons to pick them up and read them while they are there.
The first collection chosen for the scheme is the works of perhaps Argentina’s most brilliant and complex writer, Jorge Luis Borges.
Clients at the Cafe Poesia are more interested in chatting or their laptops
“The most beautiful thing about reading is talking about it,” says Hernan Lombardi, Buenos Aires’s Minister of Culture.
“There is nothing more lovely than reading some Borges and meeting a friend in a cafe who is doing the same. Part of stimulating people to read is stimulating people to talk about what they read,” he says.
Borges – poet, writer and former director of the Argentine National Library – loved Buenos Aires and his own dreamlike version of the city was the landscape for many of his stories and poems.
Until the mid-1970s Argentines were one of the most educated and literate communities in Latin America.
Argentina had an excellent public education system and a vibrant and successful publishing industry which produced books for the whole region.
But the advent of military rule in 1974 had a huge impact. Books were banned and writers attacked and murdered.
Literary output slowed as economic mismanagement and under-investment in education began to erode the tradition of reading and literary output.
The 2001 economic crisis dealt another blow to the publishing industry, hitting production and sales.
Publishing plummeted to 17m books a year, a third of the total in 1974 and half the number published annually in the 1950s.
According to Argentine publishing industry research, today only 10% of the population buys and reads books, while half of Argentines never do. Books have become a luxury for many.
If you have feelings about reading, you feel the rhythm of prose or of a poem like music. It awakens something in your soul
They also compete for attention, as in much of the world, with electronic media.
At the Cafe Poesia, also chosen for the new reading scheme, many people sit in front of laptops now to work and read, unaware of the new Borges selection of works in the corner in its government bookcase.
Gaston Basile, a university and secondary school literature teacher, feels the scheme is elitist.
“The initiative will only appeal to people who already read, the well-educated middle class who drop into cafes and might find these books attractive. How do we encourage other people, especially the lower classes? How do we promote reading at these levels?”
For Mr Basile, the government needs to focus on teacher training and curriculum reform.
“Investment in education is the key, and how we promote and teach reading from an early age,” he says.
“Reading doesn’t come naturally to children nowadays; they need to be taught to read and motivated by teachers and also find books that are not only texts to study but sources of entertainment, enjoyment and pleasure.”
The Buenos Aires city government says other authors, both Argentine and foreign, will be celebrated over the coming months in the 15 designated cafes.
The collections are also going into the city’s network of 24 libraries.
Roberto Lightowler, of the publishing company Editora Planeta, was responsible for the publication of the Borges collection. He says the Argentine government has been working hard to meet the challenge of a declining reading public.
“Since 2000 the Ministry of Education has been making large book purchases for school libraries not only of text books but also of literature,” Mr Lightowler says.
Other schemes are also helping to promote reading, he says.
“The government has also been putting into schools what they define as the 100 most important books and they are now making a second purchase of this collection.
Will the book collections stir an appetite for reading?
“And at city level, two years ago the Buenos Aires city education authorities started a scheme to give out three books a year to school children so they can start building their own libraries at home.”
Despite the drop in the number of readers, Argentina’s publishing industry has recovered in recent years, doubling the number of titles being published since 2001.
There were around 22,000 new titles last year and, on average, 70m copies are being published a year. A normal print run is around 3,000 to 4,000 (the standard range in most developed countries).
Argentina has been selected as guest of honour this year at the prestigious industry Frankfurt Book Fair in October.
It has also been nominated by the United Nation’s Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation (Unesco) as World Book Capital 2011 for the quantity and variety of its proposed programme to promote reading and literature.
Jorge Luis Borges would have approved, says Maria Kodama, his widow and president of the foundation that bears his name.
Reading and books were the most important thing in his life, she says.
“If you have feelings about reading, you feel the rhythm of prose or of a poem like music. It awakens something in your soul and then of course you study, read, you grow up and you begin to understand the message and that is the first step towards understanding life