Domingo, 23 de Octubre de 2016
04:17 CEST.

How many Cubans read?

An article by Juan Cruz in the Spanish daily El País features frightening figures about reading habits in Spain: 39.4% of Spanish adults have not read a book in the last 12 months. It adds that 57.5% have not set foot in a bookstore, and 74.7% have not been to a library.

If in the Spanish-speaking country where the most books are published, and boasting the widest free access to books, and enjoying a European Community standard of living, despite the local crisis, four out of ten people have not cracked a book since 2014, what must the figure be for Cubans, on and off the Island?

When we add to the rampant banalization sweeping the world the dire everyday problems entailed by the Cuban economy (food low in protein, the difficulty of accessing transport to get to a library, of paying for lighting by which to read, and of being packed into overcrowded housing), I imagine that not even the most deluded defender of the regime (e.g. Abel Prieto) would dare to claim that there are more readers than in Spain.

The logic is inexorable: more than half of Cubans - to be charitable - have not opened a book. This begs a question that is pressing for any country: how long has this phenomenon prevailed? And it gives rise to another: what percentage of the population is in the habit of reading?

Scholars who are experts on the issue - even before Robert Escarpit - agree that a habit means at least one hour of daily reading, on average. This yardstick is used, without distinguishing between paper (which still prevails, and much more so in Cuba) and electronic books, steadily spreading thanks to their price, speed, interactive features, constant updating and convenient storage; they are especially popular among young people, although access to current literature via the Internet is still somewhat restricted, especially when it comes to the Humanities or Social Sciences.

This sad figure - half of Cuban adults do not read - does not seem likely to change in the coming decades. While illusory Rousseauian visions have portrayed a bucolic, traditional rural life that nurtures reading an as an inevitable and unavoidable form of leisure in Cuba, there is another question that the Ministry of Education has never dared to objectively answer: how many teachers read? And its corollary: however good one is in the classroom, can he inculcate a habit that he himself does not even have? With what courage, enthusiasm or love? Or are the students just dumb?

The next generation of adults is doomed in Cuba: in 2030 only one out of three will read, not to mention (permit me a quick digression) other "benefits" stemming from their deficient social education and their teachers' improvisation, and the political habits of shutting up and clapping while looking skyward.

In addition to the skewed supply of books available, shaped by ideological and political censorship perpetrated by the Communist Party (PCC), there are the repeated failures, year after year (only 30% of the target in 2015) to carry out the Book Institute's publishing and distribution plans; including its vaunted Fair, where they sell as many “crafts” and silly trinkets as they do books.

With few releases available, and most of them unappealing, and with prices that, increasingly, the average person cannot afford, or has to pay in CUC ... who joins, especially among college students, the circle of readers? Reading has never been more elitist in Cuba, where there are municipal libraries - like that in Manzanillo -  that for years have been calling for new books, and for their chairs to be fixed, and the leaks to be repaired, and for free Internet access.

That distant era of the 1959 Revolution - around 1959, and 1968 or 1970 - was, perhaps, that with the most readers in the history of Cuba. The National Printing House, headed by Alejo Carpentier, Ediciones R, the importation and sale of affordable Spanish books, the strong network of libraries and bookstores, free education for young people and also for adults under the pedagogical axioms of continuing education, with reading at their center ... seem to support this hypothesis. Hence, the contrast with the present is all the more pathetic. And the material poverty is such a shame, and the repression such an outrage. Repression in Cuba has censored not just dissident writers, like the late   Guillermo Cabrera Infante, but those in other languages: Milan Kundera, Vasili Grossman ...        

And what about the habit of reading among Cuban exiles? It seems that none of us have come from another galaxy. Rather, we've been cut from the same "revolutionary" cloth.  Thus, especially the most recent arrivals suffer from the same vices. Then there is the broader range of leisure options and diversions, most as trivial as they are seductive. In addition, children and young people whose mother tongue is Spanish here in the US soon read and write only in English, such that the statistics are different, though, for complex reasons, not too different.

So, how many Cubans read? Few! I would argue that the percentage isn't even half that in Spain. If the Revolution went to pot along time ago, reading as a shared pastime went with it. And let there be no praising or seeking shelter in the past (a habit of mental dinosaurs, like Castro Ruz) because the neither the avalanche of entertainment for imbeciles, nor the absurdities imposed by pragmatic pedagogues in study programs and school textbooks should stop us from facing a crisis that threatens to eradicate the most beautiful and effective way there exists of nurturing one's intelligence and sensitivity.

Because the truth - despite white the doomsayers would have you believe - is that today more is read than any time in human history, which does not preclude recognizing crises, setbacks, mistakes ... Efforts to increase the amount and the percentage of reading should also address another question: what are those who read reading?

I'll leave it there. Because sometimes, in my experience, it would be preferable not to read.