Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Why Aren't There More Readers? A Note on Curiosity, Creativity, and Courage

I live books. I read books every day. I review books, translate books, edit books, and write books. I have always had a hard time fathoming why other people don't shimmer with the same enthusiasm. Perhaps they never developed the habit of reading-- it does take some effort to learn, after all; perhaps they simply don't have a clue about what treasures await them, silently gathering dust upon an infinite number of shelves (both real and digital, pay and free, as in; or, perhaps they find it too frightening to reach beyond the incuriosity of those around them. (What if they were to arouse some bully? "Hey, Egghead!")


Of course, many citizens have been gypped-- there is really no other word-- by their public education system. But over the centuries, and particularly the past two, some of the least privileged, by luck and pluck, have become avid readers and writers. (I speak as a descendant of Irish immigrants.) And indifference and even hostility towards reading and books can be found all across the social spectrum. Some of the wealthiest people, graduates of private schools, don't have anything beyond a coffee table book and maybe a thriller in their mansions-- though, true, some hire decorators who order books by the yard. (One dead giveaway: when the maid rearranges the books by size and no one objects.)

In today's New York Times David Toscana laments the lack of readers in Mexico and the woeful state of public education. Though I celebrate Mexico's vibrant and long-standing literary tradition, I have to agree with his sad portrait, alas. And it is not just the less fortunate Mexicans who do not read. When I taught the thesis seminar for seniors at a leading private university in Mexico City, I found the general level of reading and writing skills, shall we say... underwhelming. But why light on Mexicans? Plenty of people in other countries, including my own country, the United States, don't read. A few years ago, I used to do PEN Writers in the Schools visits in some Washington DC public high schools. In one instance, in their assignment about my collection of short stories, seniors were allowed to draw pictures with crayons instead of writing an essay (I am not kidding). Many graduates of even the finest U.S. colleges don't read much, either, and oftentimes, in terms of any aesthetic or intellectual nutrition, what they read would be about on par with, say, a Big Mac.

A book is not necessarily expensive. There are public libraries, Internet archives, free Kindles... In Mexico City, I've seen street vendors by the metro stations offering scads of used books, many for the price of a glass of orange juice. So why do so many people, whether well off or poor, ignore the riches around them? This is actually a very interesting question. We all do it some way, and not just with books. I don't pretend to have all the answers. But I believe the future belongs to those with curiosity, creativity, and courage-- and anyone with those three attributes, and the opportunity to do so, is more likely than not to end up in a library, either bricks-and-mortar or on-line, and with heartfelt zest.

Toscana writes, "Books give people ambitions, expectations, a sense of dignity." I know, I know in my bones, this is true.

A few links to surf:

One of the best books about books (and a hilarious read) is Mexican writer Gabriel Zaid's So Many Books.

Ediciones El Naranjo, a fine Mexican children's book publisher that is also dedicated to promoting reading. Truly a great endeavor and a wonderful website. Even if you don't read Spanish I think you'll enjoy the visit.

A few years ago, my amiga DC librarian Jane Kenney Meyers started the Lubuto Library Project to provide uniquely stocked and super low-cost libraries for homeless AIDs orphans in Africa-- and it has been a roaring success.

Check out my collection of 24 Mexican writers on Mexico, Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion. 
>Listen to the prologue as a podcast

The book that --really-- launched the Mexican Revolution of 1910. 

And a secret book published in 1911 by the same author, Francisco I. Madero, translated into English for the first time by Yours Truly.

Seven Reasons Why Ebooks Will be Big in Mexico (according to Yours Truly)

Speaking of Kindles, if you read Spanish, check out Dr Yolia Tortolero's magnificent El espíritismo seduce a don Francisco I. Madero and the Mexican writer (and my translator) Agustin Cadena's latest novel, also a Kindle, Marjuna Knabino.

A Conversation with Michael K. Schuessler, author of Guadalupe Amor, the biography of one of Mexico's greatest poets (better known as Pita Amor)-- among many other works on Mexican literary figures and Mexican history.

Free podcast series: Seth Godin's Startup School 
(Speaking of curiosity, creativity and courage-- this guy is the guru.)

My dad's book, Captured: The Forgotten Men of Guam

My great great uncle William Wirt Calkin's book, History of the 104th Illinois