What’s it like to write books in a country where people don’t read?
I was sitting in the waiting room at a bus station in San Jose, Costa Rica, when I realized that out of about 100 people waiting for the bus, I was the only one reading. This was my second trip to Costa Rica, and in the month I was there, I saw two people reading – one, my hostess, who read the newspaper delivered to her house every morning; the other, my young teacher, who brought a novel with her to class to read on her break. During the two months of my third trip, I saw one more – a young man reading a book in a restaurant.
Given Costa Rica’s reputation as a country with an educated populace, I was surprised by the apparently low incidence of reading, so I started introducing the topic into conversations. Everyone I talked with – an unscientific sample that included a publisher, several writers and teachers, and an officer of a national journalists association – agreed: by and large, Costa Ricans are not readers. They watch television. They read emails and Facebook entries. They play videogames. They don’t read. If that is indeed true, how, I wondered, did it come about?
A teacher at the school where I was studying Spanish said the problem begins in schools, where students are offered Spanish classics like Don Quixote that they think have nothing to do with their lives. Writer Anacristina Rossi said when her environmental novel La Loca de Gandoca came out, a teacher assigned it to her twelve-year-olds and then asked Rossi to come talk to the class. When Rossi met the students, some were surprised she was alive. She actually heard a girl and a boy arguing, “She’s dead. She’s alive. She’s dead. All authors we read are dead. She cannot be alive.’ So, Rossi said, they conclude that “literature is something dead.”
The books that students are most likely to read in school appear on a master list drawn up by the Ministry of Education after a complicated process of evaluation. That list plays a significant part in what books are actually available in bookstores.For instance, it was easy for me to find a copy of La Loca de Gandoca at the main bookstore in San Isidro de El General, a small city in a mountain valley south of San Jose. That book actually did get onto the education list and stayed there for years; though it has recently been removed, its longstanding status has kept it on the store shelves. But I could find neither of Rossi’s newer novels at that store, nor were they available in the biggest bookstore close to the National University in downtown Heredia, a university town near San Jose. To find Rossi’s Límon Blues and Límon Reggae, I had to trek down to bookstores in central San Jose.
How then, I wondered, do people who want to read books get hold of them? A writer in San Isidro, where I was studying Spanish, told me she takes the bus to San Jose periodically and returns laden with bags of books, used and new. Even when books are available in bookstores, in a country where the per capita income is less than one-fifth the per capita income in the U.S., the cost for many readers is prohibitive.
As an alternative, readers can go to the public library, but that, too, is likely to provide slim pickings. After several visits to the public library in San Isidro, a city of 45,000, I discovered that what I had thought was the reserve section of books – a few rows of shelves behind the main desk – was in fact the entire collection. There were two separate rooms for children, but of the books scattered sparsely across the shelves, many were Walt Disney books in Spanish and most were for the very young.
When I talked with novelist Rossi about the dearth of books in that library, she said, “The library system is a disaster because books are not considered important. This started in the first government of Óscar Arias when literature started being dangerous.” She sees the de-emphasis on reading in the schools in the same light. “They don’t want people that think. They don’t want people that read. So they keep the teachers very low paid with this problem of not paying them for the preparation of classes because all they want to have is manpower that is easy to manipulate and that will adjust to any salary, not people that think. I don’t like conspiracy theories but you can see the picture.
“So people don’t read. When I was in school, we read. That was 48 years ago. We read at school. And most of my classmates still do. And people in the public schools, state schools, they would also read. I went to private schools, but I had many friends – at that time the public schools were very good – I had many friends in the public system and they would read a lot. And that’s finished.”
In what Rossi believes is a new non-reading Costa Rica, imagine the challenge facing publishers. Rossi’s publisher, Felipe Vaquerano Pineda, manager of Editorial Legado, sat down with me one afternoon in the crowded cafeteria at the University of Costa Rica to talk about his publishing life in a country with only 4 million people, most of them not book readers. Obviously, it would be helpful if the market for Costa Rican books could expand beyond Costa Rica, so Editorial Legado has started an online bookstore to sell its own books as well as books by other publishers in Central America with the hope, he said, of getting “the whole Central American production to distribution to every part of the world.” So far, the traffic on the Librería Legado site is not high because Costa Ricans are not accustomed to buying books in that way and because the cost of mailing adds a bit to the price. But orders are trickling in from countries outside Costa Rica.
Faced with what is now still a very limited market, Vaquerano Pineda hedges his bets by publishing only books by authors who have at least one work on the Ministry of Education list – or are “very good” by the standards of his father, Sebastian Vaquerano López, who started the company. Editorial Legado also keeps print runs modest – 15,000 for a bestselling children’s book at the top of the list while a new novel like Rossi’s Limon Reggae may sell fewer than 1,000 copies in its first year.
What about authors who are not well known and who don’t have books on the Ministry of Education list? There are publishers who publish new authors, he said – publishers like Ediciones Lanzallamas, a new company that expresses the hope on its website that it will eventually publish writers from throughout the Spanish-speaking world.
“There are many, many new small publishers that are willing to risk their capital and if they like the book, they publish it,” Anacristina Rossi told me. “So there are many new writers that publish. And since even the big publishers will not take your book out of Costa Rica, it’s the same if you publish with a small one or a big one – you will not get famous anyway. But at least Costa Ricans, the ones who read, will read you.” Where do these small companies get money to publish, I wondered? “It’s family capital,” she said. “Sometimes the writers help and give half of it. Sometimes they collect from friends to pay for the book. And sometimes they just get into debt and hope to sell the book. Because publishing, if you have a thousand copies – it’s not that expensive.”
I talked with one San Isidro writer, Marta Barboza Valverde, who paid for printing her history of her grandmother’s role as a pioneer. Seven years in the making, the book – Dorotea – is a product of interviews, memories, and her own intimate knowledge of the terrain of the life of this hardy woman who used horses to carry letters, matches, coffee, and other goods across the mountains to and from this valley that was once cut off from the outside world. The book came out under the imprint of the Asociación de Escritores y Editores de Pérez Zeledón, the cantón where San Isidro is located. A former teacher, Barboza Valverde had also written a children’s book on the miracle of reading — Inquilinos de papel – and published that, too, through the Asociación. She told me she had gotten no help in promoting either book from the Ministry of Education, although the Municipalidad of San Isidro did buy 100 copies of Dorotea.
Barboza Valverde invited me to sit in on Friday evening sessions of the Asociación, and there I found as good evidence as any of writers’ will to endure in unencouraging circumstances. Nine or ten people sat around a long table in the narrow office on the ground floor of the municipal library. A rack along one wall displayed members’ books, as well as a pamphlet review the association puts out from time to time, collecting poems and other short pieces by the writers who gather weekly to share their work.
After each reading, the writers present offered suggestions – meditatively rereading their colleagues’ lines aloud with their own inflections and rhythms. Sometimes attention wandered, private conversations stirred, but eventually the focus returned to the work under scrutiny. It was a hot night, so the door to the street was open and the roar of trucks and horns from the traffic outside sometimes nearly drowned out the lines – “Me abandono al tiempo,/ un rio manso e inexorable” – the start of a poem by Ilieth Barboza Gamboa, writing about the world as perceived by someone blind. It ends with the question that lies behind many a writer’s work: Is time worth as much when it is lived in the dark? – Carol Polsgrove, April 2011. For more on writing in Costa Rica, see Anacristina Rossi and Fernando Contreras Castro.
~I’ve just stumbled across this article, thank you, it’s fascinating reading. I am a member of the Perez Zeledon International Women’s club, based in San Isidro del General. Our new community service project is developing a mobile library service for poor rural schools. We are now serving 11 schools with over 500 children. Developing the mobile service is limited by location of drivers and interested schools, so phase 2 is donating a permanent collection ‘library’ to isolated rural schools; the first 3 have been delivered and 5 more are imminent. Our initiative inspired one school to dedicate space for a library and appoint a librarian. So far, we are having great success, maybe times are changing. You can see a little more on the club website, albeit I need to update the content! Thank you again for such an interesting read. –Sheelagh Richards (http://www.pziwc.org/) July 2016
~You are so very right. I have lived here for 6 years and it took a while getting used to being the only, only person ever with a book. I was horrified to learn that many of my neighbors assumed I was an “evangelico” missionary because they saw me with books and in their world the only people who ever bother reading are conservative Christians with religious writings. On the other hand, ask anyone about the intricate details of the elaborate but ever-predictable TV novelas and you could talk for hours. – Andrew Fernandes of Alajuela, February 2013
~I’ll be moving to San Ramon in Aug.2012. I, too, had noticed the lack of books. While few people may own a book – they all have internet. ebooks are the coming thing in the States and it would seem like Costa Rica would be ripe for this form of reading. – Ed Rogers of San Ramon, July 2012
~This is very interesting for me since I’m a Costa Rican writer who specializes in English! The reading crowd here is diminishing little by little, surrendering to TV and Internet. There are a few that still gather round in small venues to talk about upcoming authors and new books coming out.
It’s great to see someone pay such attention to detail in my country because I went through a very interesting experience while in the US. I was waiting to board the plane while reading a book when an old man came over, calmly lifted the cover and smiled when he saw the title, saying: “good book, that is”. I guess that doesn’t happen with an Ipad. – Bernard Madsen of San Jose, January 2012
~I’ve lived in Costa Rica for almost 20 years and though I wouldn’t say the population here are “avid” readers, I nonetheless often see them with books or hear them discuss the latest one they’ve read. I go to malls in the US and can’t find a bookstore–I know, they are separate buildings now–whereas I do find them here. It’s worth noting, however, that rarely do I see or hear of people reading books by Costa Rican authors; instead, they are almost always international best sellers translated into Spanish or written by authors from other Spanish-speaking countries. – Galya Gerstman, Costa Rica, March 2013