Are Reading Habits in Havana Really on the Rise?

Regina Cano

At the Havana Book Fair last month. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — One of the most important cultural events that people in Havana always look forward to is the much-publicized International Book Fair, held every year at the Morro-Cabaña Fortress facing the city’s bay.

No sooner do the media begin to announce the opening of the fair than people all around the Cuban capital begin to plan their time in order to attend, like a group of people preparing to go to party.

Every year, I ask myself whether there is any truth to the claim that the huge crowds the fair draws are owed to the keen interest in reading and the eagerness to buy books that characterizes the population (as the number of attendees is directly translated into the number of readers in order to gage the reading habits of the public).

While it is true that people attend the fair to buy books, it is also a fact that today’s fairs offer a variety of services that make them far more attractive than they were before and turn them into a kind of family outing that pleases just about everyone. There are a wide variety of activities for children and a broad food offer in Cuba’s two currencies (sweets, refreshing soft and alcoholic drinks, etc.). The concerts held in the afternoons and nights and a number of other activities are other attractions at the fair.

Some stands at the fair are more popular than others and offer more “readable” books, such as the pocket and mini-book collections, cheap romances and literature for children, who spur their mothers on, hunting storybooks, games, song and poetry books, comic strips and coloring books (these tend to be a favorite among kids, especially if they are nicely bound and have plenty of pictures in them).

In addition to cheesy romance novels, many women go to the fair looking for books on crafts that can be of help in current or future self-employment ventures (such as sewing, knitting, hair styling, cooking, self-help and similar books).

Some go to the fair to stock up on books for exchanges or birthday presents for their children. There are those who buy books to re-sell them (a needed investment in today’s market).

Many men – who tag along with their families – don’t buy anything for themselves and merely fork out the cash that makes the purchases possible.

Generally speaking, the books people buy are read and then given to others as gifts. Sometimes, they are cheap entertainment that quickly ends up in the garbage.

More than 20 years ago, Cuba’s city residents were attributed with the habit of reading. Today, they – and the rest of the country’s population also, I would venture to say – are slowly losing that habit, while the illusion that their appetite for books remains healthy continues to be divulged.

We live in a predominantly analogic Cuba, where printed works continue to prevail over the large digital libraries that service the city.

Parents understimate the importance of reading children’s stories, tales from oral tradition and family yarns to their kids. This is coupled with the inability of basic schooling to instill an interest in reading, something that will be difficult to accomplish in the future, in a system where educational efforts focus only on indispensible knowledge.

Reading is culturally rewarding. It gives us knowledge, improves our spelling and interpretative skills, awakens intellectual and other forms of creativity, affords us tools that contribute to greater understanding, more refined searches and better decision-making skills – and it is best to develop an interest in it at an early age.

In the past (before 1959), many people in the city knew how to read. At the time, any hope for a better life began with at least one bookshelf at home, the beginning of the road towards a better education (which meant a better job and higher standard of living).

Nowadays, books age in stores while people wait for their prices to go down. Many a time, the publications on sale are not attractive and are mere residues of the Fair. What’s more, it is not common to come across books or bookshelves in people’s homes (beyond the textbooks people read for a given course, that is).

We must therefore ask ourselves: is it true that the habit of reading is spreading more and more every year? Aren’t the statistics misleading?

The 2014 Book Fair came to an end a few weeks ago, having toured the country as usual. The fair may have a different reception in other parts of the country, but, in the capital, as anywhere else in the world, it is a place of entertainment and attractions.

7 thoughts on “Are Reading Habits in Havana Really on the Rise?

  • I’m sure that imprisoned Cuba writers like Angel Santestieban will be much consoled to learn that a free and affluent American Castro apologist considers the work of oppressed dissident authors so much more enjoyable than the tedious prose of free people. Even if you choose not to read the dissident literature and prefer escapist genre fiction instead, your admiration for the ability of the totalitarian state to inspire creativity in its writers is astonishing.

    In the report on The Arts in Russia Under Stalin by Isaiah Berlin, your trite comment on the merits of culture during Stalin’s era is definitively refuted. It was no picnic.

  • No guilt here, Moses! Guilt is a counter-productive emotion. Besides, I refuse to buy that “Eurcentric/white guilt” crap. I only feel guilty about some of my actions in some of my past personal relationships, where, due to ignorance and insensitivity at the time, later I felt I had wronged someone. As far as Yoani is concerned, I don’t feel “uncomfortable” about her writings–I just disagree with them! I feel she offers erroneous solutions. She’s like a fighter who, after being punched in the head , instead of going on a skillfull counter-attacking, is now so stunned that she just flails around, throwing a bunch of wild punches. She really wants to provoke a violent counter-revolution. Although I visit Generacion Y from time to time, ultimately, I find her viewpoint destructive, offering nothing positive. Also, many of her readers seem to be older Miami troglodytes (not the younger, more pragmatic Cubans of the diasphora). The former seem to be like “dittoheads.” She’s welcome to continue “preaching to an admiring chorus” in their perpetual circle-jerk.

  • Elio captures the good and the bad through his pictorial essays. Yoani also reflects both the good and the bad. You accept Elio’s photos of collapsed buildings and broken streets as adding to the perverted charm you call daily life in Cuba. But I suspect that Yoani’s words can not be as easily dismissed and that makes you uncomfortable. Foreigners like you can go to Cuba and assuage all that white, Eurocentric guilt built up over the years of underserved privilege you have enjoyed. Reading Yoani’s Generation Y must evoke all that guilt all over again
    because it reminds you who really pays for your trip to Disneyland Cuba.

  • Have you ever noticed that 99% of Yoani’s rants are negative? With her, the sky’s always dark, or even about to fall down and knock you in the noggin! Life is too short to spend much time listening to her stuff. That’s one of the reasons I prefer HT, rather than Generacion Y. Although here @ HT there is a good % of criticisms of Cuba’s system , much of it justified, nevertheless, it is leavened with a few positive reports too (such as Elio Delgado’s, for example) plus many more which gi
    ve the flavor of daily life and culture in Cuba.

  • Do realize what you are saying? That it bores you to read about Cuban repression and human rights abuses unless it has been filtered with “al[l]egory and satire”. What Yoani writes about, without obfuscation or disguise is Cuban reality. Does your fantasy reality of Cuba mean so much to you that you choose to reject the truth in its unvarnished form and prefer to treat Cuban failings as a source of amusement and entertainment? That’s pathetic.

  • Just goes to show you that a certain amount of “guidance” from the state seems to increase the creative juices of some authors. Under such conditions, these authors know the state takes them seriously (as articulated in the aesthetic policies of Plato’s REPUBLIC, from which the Revolution ultimately traces its philosophy), and that they have to use all the tools at their disposal, such as alegory and satire, to communicate their ideas. Once they have the so-called “freedom” to say whatever they please (e.g. Alexander Solzhenitsyn), their is a dramatic falling off in their popularity, as evinced by the ratings on his tv program after he returned to Russia. Soon they were in the toilet, and his show was cancelled. Nothing is so boresome as someone bloviating about what we should or shouldn’t do! In reading about the problems of the Revolution and contemporary Cuban society, I’d much rather read one of Leonardo Padura’s “Lt. Conde” series, or some of his more recent non-fiction explorations, than anything the tiresome Yoani Sanchez has to preach or hector about. Even during the darkest days of Iosif Visarionavich Ilf and Petroff could write–and publish–outrageously funny stories like “The Soviet Robinson Crusoe.” Those less skilled, who tried to be too literal, often found themselves in the gulag–or worse! Great incentive for writing well!

  • Isn’t a bit ironic, Orwellian even, to hold a Book Fair in a country which bans certain books, and imprisons or exiles authors who dare to write politically incorrect works.

    Back in the 1960’s when the Morro Castle was still a “working” prison the great Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas was an inmate there. I doubt any of his books were available at the Havana Book Fair, nor those of Ángel Santiesteban, currently an inmate at Lawton Prison Settlement.

    Until the Cuban people enjoy free speech and a free press, the Havana Book Fair will remain a cruel Stalinist joke.

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