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.