A note to my readers—
When I mentioned to a fellow book group member, Lawrence Steinberg, that I was going to Chile over spring break with my son Cal to do some cycling—and visit libraries—he said we simply must visit his daughter, Ashley, who was living in Santiago. A few years ahead of Cal, Ashley had just graduated from Penn and had taken it on herself to move to Chile to try her hand as a journalist and English teacher before going on to Stanford Law School. (Thus far, her work has appeared in The Nation, Newsweek.com and the Santiago Times.)
We couldn't have asked for a better guide to take us to the Biblioteca Nacional, as well as to give us an idea of what reading was like in Chile. As Ashley began to describe the many differences, including the subtle ones (in her experience, people rarely ask one another what they are reading), I realized that Levenger Well-Read Life readers would benefit from hearing directly from this talented young writer. I asked her to post a guest essay on the reading life in Chile from an American's perspective. Here is her report.
Chileans call their country pais de poetas (“country of poets”). The South American nation has produced two Nobel Prize for Literature winners, Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral, and an array of talented writers. To be a Chilean reader is to be immersed in literature inspired by a landscape of mountains, lakes, volcanoes, glaciers and deserts; to be entranced by a place where Isabel Allende’s magical realism mixes with Roberto Bolaño’s sense of adventure, where Alberto Fuguet’s passion meets Ariel Dorfman’s politics.
Any tourist arriving in Chile is made aware of the nation’s deep literary tradition. Taxi drivers point tourists to Neruda’s kooky houses in Santiago, Valparaíso and Isla Negra. Tourist maps highlight statues and museums devoted to other literary greats. This unusually shaped country of almost 17 million people considers its literary contributions to be an important part of its heritage.
When I first came to Chile in 2006 to write for the English-language newspaper the Santiago Times, I was unaware of the country’s literary legacy. But I soon learned how important it was to the Chilean people, and I began to familiarize myself with the country’s poets and writers.
What I began to notice, however, was that for a country whose literature is so spirited, books are exorbitantly, often prohibitively, expensive. A book that might cost $10 in the United States can cost the equivalent of $25 in Chile. Considering the lower median salary in Chile, the high prices are all the more shocking.
The high price tag is a result of a tax placed on books as well as Chilean publishers’ desire for high profit margins on limited volume. The high price of books is especially peculiar considering Chile’s quest to become a developed commercial and financial world center. Literacy is one of the most effective tools governments can use to bring up their least privileged citizens out of poverty, but the book tax threatens to price literacy out of the reach of the very ones aspiring to it.
Luckily, efforts are being made to address the incongruity between the justifiable pride the Chileans have for their literature and the inflated price of new books. Governments at the national, regional and municipal levels have intensified their efforts to open new libraries and modernize old ones, and ensure that all neighborhoods have at least one public library. Libraries currently serve as especially important resources for university students, for whom paying 50,000 Chilean pesos (over $100) for a textbook is unthinkable. Unofficial estimates suggest that almost half of municipal library users are students.
Residents of Santiago, Chile’s capital city, are treated to the BiblioMetro program, a series of small booths or storefronts in key metro stations that allow passengers to check out books for the small annual fee of 3000 Chilean pesos (just over $6). They can return the books to the giant book drops that are scattered throughout the metro system.
Additionally, a new national government program, Maletin Literario (“Literary Briefcase”), was created to give books by both Chilean and foreign authors to 400,000 families living in poverty. The government received criticism from right-wing politicians who believed that “delivering Kafka to families on welfare” was an inefficient use of funds, but program supporters fought back, arguing that the poor, just as much as the rich, had a right to literature.
Nonprofits have also stepped in to improve the situation. The Gates Foundation funded a program called BiblioRedes, a multi-million dollar initiative that installed free public Internet access in 378 libraries across the country, bringing hundreds of thousands of Chileans through the doors.
And there are other ways around the expense. A pedestrian walking down any street in downtown Santiago will undoubtedly encounter vendors hawking pirated books from sidewalk tables, flagrantly defying intellectual-property laws alongside their DVD- and CD-selling counterparts.
Less illicitly, Chileans can also take advantage of frequent ferias del libro, or book fairs, that offer some discounted books. Not every title is bound to be available, and finding exactly what you seek is not a quick or easy process, but for the book enthusiast, browsing at the ferias is a good option. There are also second-hand bookshops that carry old books for lower prices, though the latest bestselling hardcover would be difficult to find.
Yet despite the lack of ubiquitous Barnes & Noble stores and Amazon.com, Chileans have something in common with citizens of more developed countries. They, too, face information and media overload. With television, Internet, video games and movies competing for readers’ attention, the price of books creates an easy excuse to spend leisure time doing something that is instantly accessible.
“What is happening here is similar to the trend in the U.S.,” says Viviana Garcia, the Coordinator of the Municipal Library in Providencia. “Chileans don’t read as much as we should.”
Unlike in America, however, reading is not quite a social institution. Alma Rates, a film student in Santiago, says that “book clubs are not very common here, and I don’t usually hear people asking each other if they’ve read any good books lately.”
It is unclear whether this has anything to do with book prices. And ultimately, as Garcia from the Providencia library explains, “people who want to read will always find a way.”
As one friend tells me, the difficulty of acquiring books makes one appreciate reading more. A book cannot be an impulse buy. “It is something you save up for, something you think about, something you look forward to,” he says.
“And something you are grateful for when your fingers finally turn the first page.”