December 5, 2013
On the way to becoming a nation of readers
After military repression, Argentina is recovering its cultural development
Amid this week’s news — overshadowed by the new conflict with Uruguay following President José Mujica’s unexpected decision to allow UPM pulp mill (the former Botnia) to increase its annual production — this column would rather not address such an unpleasant issue which pits two sister nations against each other once again. This choice is only reinforced by the regrettable enthusiasm displayed by some Argentine opposition leaders and media which are so bent on challenging the government that they seem willing to join any cause. Therefore, this Sunday’s column will not discuss such petty issues, preferring to focus on one of the most positive aspects of Argentine democracy over the last years.
And no topic is more formidable, in this particular respect, than the necessary praise for the rebound of the Argentine people as a society of readers. After decades of being the most advanced Spanish-speaking country in terms of cultural development, Argentina’s degradation was shocking. The authoritarian regimes ruling between 1966 and 1983 had dire repercussions, some of which were subtle and unnoticeable: one of those consequences was the shattering of the previously cultured and avid reading country, which turned, embarrassingly, into a nation of non-readers.
In 1983, nobody knew how or to what extent this nation had been transformed by reading. Because Argentina had been the most reading-inclined country in Latin America — and even in the whole Spanish-speaking world: it was the main producer of books on the continent and the first exporter of books and magazines to the Americas and Spain, encompassing almost the whole of universal knowledge —from literature to philosophy to science and technology. It was in Argentina where books were first translated before reaching the rest of the Spanish-speaking readers in the Americas and Spain. Millions of book and magazine copies would come out of this country’s printing houses, turning Argentina into an unquestionable nation of readers.
Such a feat was possible because, since late 19th century, the social imagination was linked to reading. Immigrants and criollos alike were committed to the idea that the social ascent of their children and grandchildren was not a mere economic equation but also relied on reading as a way to gain knowledge and wisdom. That’s why our trade unions, our first political parties, the community associations, the neighbourhood clubs and cooperatives throughout the country were organized in friends’ libraries before they rapidly created their own. It was a generally acknowledged truth that social advancement was to be reached only through reading and that particular belief played a leading role in building a literate Argentina, a country whose demand of books and magazines was extremely high and sustained.
All that was lost afterwards, following the demonization of reading and books — when the censorship, fear and authoritarian discourse which perversely claimed that books were subversive took hold of almost every social sector. Unlikely as it may seem, until thirty years ago, books were considered subversive in this country because knowledge was deemed subversive. Every aspect of knowledge was considered dangerous, from creative thinking to the free expression of ideas. Large publishing houses and even entire libraries were wiped out, millions of books were burned and dozens of journalists, writers and poets were murdered.
Therefore, reading and books, which had been the bedrock of the social advancement ambition, eventually became just another forced disappearance in the collective conscious. And since they also disappeared from Argentine schools, causing a serious educational problem, the result soon became patently clear.
We could say that, between 1984 and 2000, the effort to rebuild reading’s prestige was rather silent and marginal. While book fairs throughout the country — following the lead of the Buenos Aires book fair — displayed a gradual recovery, the issue of low readership lingered in spite of the growing intellectual output.
It was only at the turn of the century — in 1999, to be precise — that the government ushered in a new policy which later became the current National Reading Plan overseen by the Ministry of Education. This policy — at least under the administration of Andrés Delich during the Alliance government and then under Daniel Filmus, Juan Carlos Tedesco and Alberto Sileoni — has been consolidated year by year and minister after minister, with praise worthy consistency.
Due to renewed programmes aiming to encourage reading at every level and thanks to the strong involvement of ONGs and the civil society, over the last decade we’ve witnessed the recovery of our nation as a society of readers.
And we know this not by mere intuition but because we measure readership. The foundation presided by this columnist in Chaco has a Reading Observatory which can be checked online. Last week, the renowned pollster Ibarómetro ran a nationwide survey for this Observatory and the statistic data it unearthed is, for once, exciting.
-38.9 percent of more than 1,000 respondents admit to reading less than before, while 29.3 percent claim they read more than before and 25.6 percent say their reading habits have not changed.
-45.8 percent of readers remember having been encouraged to read as children.
-68.2 percent of Argentines read one to five books every six months. And more than a quarter of the polled population (26.6 percent) read five books or more every six months.
-26.9 percent of respondents feel that reading is an enforced practice, while 46.1 percent see it as a constructive, educational and cultural habit. Only 17.9 percent consider it recreational.
-As to the Internet’s influence, Ibarómetro’s survey confirms expectations and previous tests: disregarding the Argentines who don’t use the Internet (35.8 percent of the entire population), more than 64.2 percent of the Internet-using community claim the Internet has encouraged them to read. More than half of them are under 30.
Of course there is much to be done yet. But we are on the right track.