The literary pirate
Books are always in crisis, it seems, but even more so in Latin America. Though newspaper readership is picking up in many of the regionâ€™s Spanish-speaking countries, book buying has yet to follow suit.
And then there is this new bad news: the region these days is producing a scant 2.5 percent of so-called â€ścultural productsâ€ť consumed by the global market. This despite claiming some of the worldâ€™s most memorable and canonized writers, from Jorge Luis Borges to Pablo Neruda and, of course, Gabriel GarcĂa MĂˇrquez.
The US, by comparison, manufactures 43 percent of cultural goods; Europe gives us 35 and Asia around 18 percent, according to a report by La FundaciĂłn IDEAS, a Spain-based political think tank.
And to blame for this?
The easiest culprit seems to be reader himself. Or rather the non-reader. “Latin Americans just arenâ€™t reading!” Or so I’ve heard many an urban intellectual complain.
But people are reading. They just arenâ€™t doing so legally.
In Latin America, booksâ€”that is the officially versions of booksâ€”are not easy to come by. Bookstores are rare to nonexistent outside of the regionâ€™s largest cities. And the books they sell can cost close to a dayâ€™s wage or more in some countries.
On the Coast of Colombia, where I spent the past year, there were only two bookstores in town, neither of which offered a wide selection. I remember once passing by in search of a book by Marvel Moreno, a once famous Boom-era author from the countryâ€™s Caribbean Coast.
â€śSorry we donâ€™t have any books by her,â€ť the bookseller told me. â€śAnd weâ€™re not going to be able to get them either.â€ť
They did, though, have several copies of the latest novel by Laura Restrepo, one of Colombiaâ€™s best selling authors, for about $15. Just a few blocks from the store, I could find a pirated version of the same book for about half the price (full disclosure: I did not buy a pirated Restrepo, but I have paid for a bootleg version of GarcĂa MĂˇrquez before).
Which gets us to the real heart of the problem. Or perhaps to the biggest symptom of the problem:
While bookstores are scarce in small towns and cheap books hard to find in just about any book store in Latin America, what is not at all uncommon are street-side stands selling ripped-off versions of the world’s great literature. Cheaply made copies of novels, known asÂ pirated books, are often sold just outside official bookstores, their pages nothing more than smudged photocopied pages and covers cheaply printed thin cardboard.
These book copies are so common, in fact, that GarcĂa MĂˇrquez regularly launches protests against them,refusing his books to be sold in countries or regions that encourage piracy. His most notable such protestÂ began 10 years ago when he pulled the sale of his books from Colombia, his home country, saying he wouldnâ€™t allow them to be sold until the government tightened down on the bootleg books.
A group called CERLAC (the Regional Center for the Promotion of Latin American and Caribbean Literature) has now joined the fight against piracy in the region. Their annual projects range from reinforcing authors rights in Guatemala to helping Cuban bookstores get the technology they need to distribute and sell (legal) novels.
Meanwhile a diverse group of book advocates have posited their own solutions. In Mexico, theyâ€™ve floated the idea of a fixed price on books, meant to make legal reading more affordable. And throughout Latin America, annual book fairs aim to create buzz around books. But as with the bookstores themselves, most of these fairs are concentrated in the biggest cities, where readership is already higher.
The main hope on a broad scale, it seems, is that the technology will level the playing ground, making books both cheaper and more accessible in the region. Though itâ€™s hard to see at this point if that’s the solution or another dimension to the same problem.Â Many University students I met in Colombia, for instance, were already in the habit of illegally downloading the books they needed for class. They did so because the actual copies of the texts were close to impossible to find locally and exorbitantly expensive to get shipped in.
All of which is to say that, yes, Latin Americans are reading. The region, too, is producing â€ścultural productsâ€ť by the bucket-load. We just have no way of quantifying any of it.