In Buenos Aires, the government is putting Borges on the cafe shelves.
To combat the seeming luxury of reading, Argentinian officials are displaying books by the nation’s greatest writers, including Jorge Luis Borges (one of my favorite writers–Ficciones was one of those books that absolutely floored me with its literary invention and myth), in 13 cafes. Some say resources should go into teacher training and curriculum rather than displays for the elite who frequent cafes. The government is also giving schoolchildren up to three books a year to build their own libraries. Why the urgency to get people reading?
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.
Another literacy trend I’ve noticed in major U.S. cities is the city-wide book club. I don’t know how successful these campaigns have been (and I dread the kind of sentimental, least-controversial selections chosen for these programs, like To Kill a Mockingbird–an earnest, if simplistic tale of good and evil) but they seem an honest attempt to connect literacy with conversation. Of course, lots of book people disagree.
I have mixed feelings about these large-scale literacy programs. On one hand, free books in cafes, a single city-wide book club, and influential people like Oprah are necessary to encourage literacy and buying books. On the other hand, it’s frightening to consider the power of one person or some committee telling a large population what to read. I love the idea, but wish readers made their choices more discriminately, consulting book reviews, talking to local booksellers, investing in the world of literature as a way of life instead of the latest (passing) fad.
Ultimately, if people are talking about books–no matter what the book–it’s a good thing, no? If everyone’s reading Harry Potter and The Kite Runner, we can rightfully claim ourselves a nation of readers. Whether these books should have as much notoriety or sales as Richard Yates is another thing altogether.