To Read or Not to Read: That is the Question
Do Nicaragua’s young people read?
If so, what do they read? And if not, why not?
To answer these questions I visited a university,
a library and a bookstore to interview people who
know about our educational system’s deficiencies
and promote the pleasure of reading.
William Grigsby Vergara
According to Moroccan-French writer Daniel Pennac, readers are subject to 10 rights, the first of which is the right not to read. It appears that, consciously or unconsciously, the majority of young Nicaraguans haven’t managed to get past that first right, with most of them granting themselves the right not to read on a daily basis. Given the choice between a good book and a bad film on TV, the television set ends up winning more often than we’d like to admit.
Pennac states that the duty of “educating” consists of teaching children to read, initiating them into literature, providing them the means to judge whether they feel the “need for books.” He also says that while it can be admitted with no problem that someone rejects reading, it’s intolerable for people to be, or believe themselves to be, rejected by it. Do we reject reading in Nicaragua? And if so, why? Are we faced with a generalized, national apathy? Why are we the way we are? As an avid reader, I wanted to examine some of the causes for not reading, to find out whether Nicaraguan youth exercise Pennac’s famous 10 rights of readers: the right not to read, the right to skip pages, the right not to finish a book, the right to re-read, the right to read anything, the right to be moved when reading, the right to read anywhere, the right just to skim, the right to read aloud and the right not to talk about what you read.
In the UCA, a mass of I conducted my first “case study” in the Central American University (UCA), where I studied. Let’s take a look at what goes on behind the walls of the beautiful José Coronel Urtecho Library and on its old shelves. According to a recent UCA study, the average number of books borrowed per year is 26 per student, a somewhat shocking figure bearing in mind that the UCA has at least 6,000 students. In the main hall, whose books are not permitted out on loan, the annual average is 20 books. This means that UCA students only actually borrow two books every four months, even though they have at least four classes during that time.
students is cut off from reading
I seek out the coordinator of the UCA’s Research Department, Wendy Bellanger, who is also surprised by these figures. She tells me the university is promoting “reading comprehension courses” in an attempt to remedy the limited reading habits among young students. Writing workshops are also being given to students from certain courses, while graduate and master’s courses include a reading comprehension workshop, which is also given to the lecturers. Wendy teaches the introduction to anthropology course. Her sociology and social worker students can’t correctly reference the bibliographies they use: “Instead of quoting the author, they tell me, ‘according to such and such a booklet…’”
The UCA lecturers commonly make mini-booklets with extracts from books to give their students summarized information; this promotes laziness toward reading and analyzing the authors’ thinking. Teachers also hand out photocopies, reducing the study materials, so the students don’t have much chance to discover the most valuable information and tend only to copy the underlined texts. On other occasions teachers provide a bibliography of a single book. “Sometimes there’s only one copy for several students,” Wendy tells me. “And when the sharpest student takes it out of the library, the others have to queue up to photocopy it.” She finds it worrying that “most of the students go all the way through their major without believing books are necessary.”
The “truth” according to the internetAnother problem is that students have to go through a whole bureaucratic rigmarole of institutional procedures to get their hands on the book they want to read. “UCA students always have to queue up to find their book,” explains Wendy, “and the institution is afraid to openly loan out books, because there’s an idea that the students don’t look after them, that they mutilate them.” The library’s fear of having its books stolen or damaged limits the experience of researching and interacting with the books on friendly terms. On other occasions, when books are so old that the pages fall out at the slightest contact and no new editions are available, they are so unattractive that the young students reject them.
Do professors read? “You hardly see any lecturers in the library, just students,” Wendy replies, sparking my curiosity. Should we assume that lecturers don’t need to visit the library because they have shelves of literature in their home or office? Who knows? But lecturers often make do with the oral information they give in class instead of encouraging their students to research the topics in greater depth.
Wendy’s teaching experience offers another interesting angle on the crisis. “The false idea is being created that ‘the truth’ is on the Internet,” she notes. “My students often make reference to Wikipedia, the students’ new authority.” The new supply of virtual libraries is filling university desks with a race of lazy researchers. “They aren’t being taught to be selective with the Internet,” complains Wendy. To make matters worse, lecturers are currently lined up around two poles: those who bank on the wealth of on-line literature, believing the web to be the best channel of information; and those critical of the new technologies, who fear the disappearance of the physical format and plagiarism of academic information. With the professors polarized, the students are slightly lost as they surf that great ocean of signs and meanings that is the Internet. And the dark side common to all technologies fosters idle routines among the students.
These realities—an omnipresent culture of oral transmission among lecturers, the students’ lack of criticism toward the mass media and the ambiguity of the information received via the Internet without the radar of selectivity—produce deficiencies in the students’ formation. The university world doesn’t foster a culture that sees written transmission as a important vehicle for information and knowledge. “Oral communication proves easier to digest and retain,” concludes Wendy. “And I don’t believe this can be resolved with reading comprehension courses alone. You have to start working in the schools to overcome the apathy towards books.”
Books for children: So what’s the story with schoolchildren? Are there books inside the school’s four walls? And if so, how do they fit in with the school system? What books are there? I decided to learn about the experience of Books for Children, which fosters “the pleasure of reading” precisely to combat the school experience, where reading is a duty, not a pleasure.
Reading as pleasure v. boring school methods
Books for Children is an NGO dreamed up by Mary Jo Amani, a US citizen who came to Nicaragua in the early 1990s and found the national libraries bereft of children’s literature. Surprised and saddened, she decided to create an organization that would encourage children to read. She founded Books for Children in 1993 and handed the project over to three Nicaraguan educators in 1995. The organization began working in seven schools in Rivas, Belén and Potosí, using books Amani left in Nicaragua before taking her leave. “She taught us a great deal about children’s literature and organized the first collections,” the organization’s current director, Eduardo Báez, tells me. “At the beginning, we worked with about 300 books in story corners, schools and small libraries. About 40% of the books we use today are titles she left to us.”
Eduardo talks with passion and conviction. One of his most deeply-held convictions is that children have to be offered quality literature. “Many writers view children’s literature as a handicraft, something inferior, and think that writing for children is beneath them.” He explains that three basic things are needed for children to fall in love with reading and become readers: books with quality texts and illustrations; reading the books aloud so the children can get to know them; and letting them play with, choose, touch and exchange the books. These are the principles behind Books for Children’s work, and they contradict the normal role books play at school.
Schools “vaccinate” against reading“In a population with Nicaragua’s poverty levels it’s illusory to think a family is going to put a book for the children on the shopping list,” reflects Eduardo. “In any case, when they can, parents prioritize school exercise books and textbooks, not books for entertainment. They don’t see them as necessary.” The first obstacle is that books are expensive, the second is that the public libraries—which could provide an alternative to get the population reading—are in an increasingly lamentable state, and the third is that the governments haven’t paid any attention to the cultural poverty this implies.
According to Eduardo, the main problem is at school and in the education system, which vaccinates the population against reading: “After doing so many interpretive summaries and filling out so many 3x5 cards with boring information at school, you leave averse to reading. School doesn’t help form readers; quite the contrary, unintentionally its work gets all students at all levels to see reading as a necessary evil.” So when they get to university they only read what they have to for their profession and don’t consider reading a pleasurable habit.
They haven’t had books around them from a young age to play and grow up with. “At school, children associate reading with studying, obligation, subjects,” explains Eduardo. “Reading at school doesn’t have much to do with reading in real life; it’s a very artificial kind of reading. You don’t experience or experiment with the social uses of reading at school.” It’s true that I read at school to cover the curriculum and satisfy the programs. In the end, we only read to obtain our certificates. “It’s unlikely you’ll be left to read a novel that you chose at school,” laments Eduardo. “If you read one it’s because it’s been imposed on you. And what’s more, they impose it for you to do synoptic tables afterwards, which is something you never do as a reader in real life.”
Where are readers born: With a presence in almost the whole of Nueva Segovia, in Somoto, San Lucas and Madriz, in Estelí, Carazo and Masaya, Books for Children works in schools and community centers. Like the universities, schools don’t lend books out freely for children to take home, fearing they might get torn. “It’s understandable that schools keep books unused on a bookshelf because they don’t have the money to replace them,” says Eduardo. “But the problem with overprotecting books is that the children can’t read them if they can’t touch them. We try to make people understand that it’s normal for books to get torn and deteriorate with use.”
At home or in school?
Books for Children tries to involve parents in their children’s educational process. Eduardo tells me that “when parents go to the story corners with their children, we realize right away that the parents haven’t read much either. We see adults sitting down, almost competing with their children to read stories; people of 30, 40, enjoying the stories alongside the children... This is very important. It’s fundamental for parents to sit and read with their children and share affection through reading.”
In the story corners, Books for Children also offers children the chance to borrow books to take home. At the beginning, the adults think their children are going to the story corners to study. “Sometimes a mom or dad comes up to us and says, ‘You should see how much my child reads, he laps up stories, but then he doesn’t want to study.’ We explain that reading a story for fun isn’t the same as studying a book for school.” Eduardo is convinced that all children love reading if offered books in a not-so academic, serious or demanding atmosphere, with no grades given and no questions asked after they’ve finished. Only free of such shackles can children find pleasure in reading. There’s a myth that school forms readers, and it feeds off the poverty of homes with no suitable atmosphere to encourage reading. “It’s hard to find book collections among people with limited resources; there aren’t even any books,” Eduardo comments. “So the family blames the school if the child doesn’t want to read, when the ideal place to develop as a reader is at home.”
Books for Children’s great problem is that the vast majority of teachers don’t read either. “That limits you,” says Eduardo, “because nobody can give what they don’t have and if you’re not a reader you won’t be able to instill the habit and pleasure of reading in your pupils. Teachers are also the result of the educational system and its deficiencies. They don’t buy books for themselves; they find it really hard even to survive on their very low salaries and have thus come to see reading as just another work load. Most teachers don’t vary the reading they give their students. They abuse the classics, always sending the children to read the same ones, leaving all of the contemporary literature for young people, which the teachers don’t even know about, by the wayside.”
The mobile library and German-Nicaraguan library:I take my leave of Eduardo Báez, asking myself how to deal with that routine known as school, that bureaucratic monster that loads children’s backpacks up with textbooks and stops them falling in love with good literature. I set off to learn about another experience, also born of a passion for books and the conviction that reading provides power, pleasure and growth. It’s an initiative in solidarity with prisoners and with children from rural areas, taking books to people living in hostile environments where access to literature is very limited.
Good supply, limited demand
German social activist Elizabeth Zilz came to Nicaragua in the 1980s, attracted by the social changes taking place at the time. In 1987, she was the main person responsible for the birth of the Bertolt Brecht Mobile Library, created to satisfy the reading desires of children from rural communities and of people locked up in the country’s prisons. A sister initiative, this one stationary, is the German-Nicaraguan Library (BAN), created in 2001 thanks to two big halls provided by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation with German government funds, private funds and a piece of land donated by the Managua Municipal Council. Every year, Elizabeth promotes both projects at the famous Frankfurt Book Fair and collects funds to enrich the BAN and the mobile library with more books.
The BAN informs me that 27% of Nicaraguan prisoners are between the ages of 15 and 18, many of them forming part of the 30% of the national population that is illiterate, according to BAN figures. The FSLN government has committed itself to eradicating illiteracy in the country by 2009, the 30th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution.
A preference for television and computersFifty-two-year-old Reybil Cuaresma has been the driver of the mobile library from the very beginning. He tells us that an average of 200 children visit the bus every day between January and April during the first school months. They come from the schools surrounding the BAN in the Las Brisas neighborhood and are looking for materials for their homework and school tasks. Reybil looks concerned: the kids only come to research academic subjects, looking for texts on Spanish, math, physics, biology and natural sciences, with few looking for pleasure and reflection, even though the library has around 13,000 titles. “They’re only looking for work-reading,” he tells me. As Elizabeth Zilz explains, “The kids of today prefer television and the computer to books.”
The mobile library lends some 140 books a month in each penitentiary complex. According to Reybil, they lend a lot of philosophy, poetry and self-help books in the prisons of Granada, Matagalpa, Chinandega and La Esperanza, the latter the country’s only women’s prison. It gives him a great deal of satisfaction that “they look after the books; only about four or five of our books get worn out during the year.” The place where they lend fewest books—just 47 per visit—is the women’s prison. “Not all the female inmates know how to read; sometimes they just board the bus to flick through books with illustrations.”
A readers’ club in the BAN allows adults and children to take two books home for two weeks. But only 23 people take books home every month and all of them are pupils; no teachers take advantage of the opportunity. It’s like in the UCA and many public schools, where they teachers aren’t used to seeking more information than the education system demands. The books most sought after by the children are Harry Potter and Rubén Darío’s poetry, while adolescents and young adults particularly seek out didactic materials. Reybil calculates that only about ten kids look for books for the pleasure of reading. “I’d like to see university students coming to look for books, but although we promote the BAN in the universities, there’s no literary demand,” says a disappointed Elizabeth.
El Parnaso Bookshop: It has become clear to me that neither children nor young people are interested in touching books, whether because they spend more time in front of the television or the Internet, because school immunized them against literature or because their limited resources don’t allow them to buy books. But if they’re interested in books and can buy them, what do they read? I visited a book shop very close to the UCA and the National Engineering University, right in the middle of university territory, to find out what young people prefer, what authors they read most and how the price of books affects the pockets of those youths who do read.
Books youths prefer when they can afford them
El Parnaso bookshop opened its doors in 1990 and is owned by Salvadora Navas, director of the Anamá publishing house. She tells me that very few young people buy books: “Those who do are young people who’ve had a school in their home, really a minority. I think the current development of technology is killing young readers. They think it’s all on Wikipedia… But despite this, there are kids who do want to read. It doesn’t seem right to me to categorically state that young people don’t read anything.” She has known young people very interested in literature, who are particularly seeking philosophy. The favorite is Nietzsche. “It seems that the inquiring kids start with him,” she says. “Either someone recommends him, or it’s for some other reason, but every time we bring books by Nietzche they sell out quickly.”
In a country of poets, young people don’t buy contemporary poetry, not even by the young Nicaraguan poets who manage to get published. When they look for national poetry they ask for Alfonso Cortés and most of all Carlos Martínez Rivas. “There’s a big group of Carlos Martínez followers,” says Salvadora. “So when we published his Collected Poetry at the end of 2007, there was a huge demand from young people and the copies sold out very quickly.” Young people also look for literature that has made history, which explains why they don’t go after contemporary authors, preferring dead or consecrated ones. “The young people who visit us ask a lot for the poetry of Mario Benedetti, Juan Gelman and Roque Dalton, among the foreign authors,” Salvadora explains.
Among the authors currently in fashion, she mentions Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho as the most sought after, but states that his books are mainly preferred by adults. Self-help books also have a broad literary market among adults.
A lack of money makes young people selective and they generally don’t buy new books, preferring to circulate those they already have by either swapping them or buying them secondhand. The university students tend to visit this bookshop because their lecturers ask them for specific biographies. The same is true for schoolchildren who almost always come to buy the same recommended works: Marianela, Don Quijote, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Azul.
Will books disappear some day?It’s impossible to overestimate the value of young people interested in literature as a personal need arriving eager at a bookshop, leaving a 20% deposit, taking away the book they want and then paying off the remainder later. In most cases, these people aren’t only readers, they’re also fledgling writers.
Books aren’t particularly expensive in Central America compared to other places, but they are expensive compared to the purchasing power of the people who want to buy them. “A book that costs 250 córdobas (US$13) is expensive in Nicaragua, but not in the United States or Europe,” Salvadora tells me. “In Europe a book might cost up to 50 Euros and be accessible to almost any citizen. In the United States I’ve seen books by Nicaraguan authors selling for $20, $25 or $30, which isn’t expensive there, but it is here.” In her experience there are two kinds of young readers: those who are looking for editorial quality and have the means to pay for it, and those who buy a manually bound, photocopied, pirated version of Love in the Time of Cholera for 50 córdobas. The latter are the majority.
Salvadora Navas has a less pessimistic vision of the possible disappearance of books in their physical form due to the boom in virtual libraries. “I think books will never disappear,” she says. “Enjoying a book also involves touching it. The Internet can be a tool to broaden your knowledge, but it’s better to have direct contact with the book. The Internet only serves to update you and not all kids have access to it. Reading a book in any depth requires enough time and you don’t find that kind of time in a cyber café. I don’t think books have ever been in danger of disappearing. For those of us who are avid readers, the greatest pleasure is that each book has marked a stage in our life.”
The many crises in the I go off to my next meeting a little more encouraged. It appears that, in the midst of the sea of apathy towards literature, there’s a handful of young people interested in devouring literary figures and digesting them with imagination. Although it may be a small group, it provides hope for the future. But does our education system offer any broader future? Will things change or will readers continue to be a minority?
public education system
Vanessa Castro, current coordinator of the Center for Social and Educational Action (CIASE), is a researcher and teacher who has been studying the reading and writing capacity in schools of both the Caribbean and Pacific areas of Nicaragua. The study’s aim is to discover how children from rural communities respond to the task in the first grades of stammering their way through simple sentences until they can read complete paragraphs, and what they understand in this initial effort as readers.
According to Vanessa, today’s youth can be divided into two groups. One has access to books but doesn’t pick them up because these kids are immersed in the Internet or television, while the other doesn’t read for three basic reasons: they don’t have books, they’re working or they didn’t learn to read fluidly as children. The study she’s participating in looks at why children in the early grades—when they should be learning to read and write—don’t manage to automate the cognitive process that develops in the brain and allows us to read interactively and understand what’s being said in texts and story books.
Vanessa’s worried. “We aren’t achieving this essential process in our education system, particularly in the poorest schools and most vulnerable sectors,” she explains, “because there are deficiencies in the methodology the teachers use. Children from very disadvantaged social classes come with huge limitations: they’ve never been read stories because their moms were surely busy working, didn’t know how to read or read well enough, and because there probably were no books, magazines or even newspapers at home. These children don’t learn much when they go to school and are most likely to leave the education system and remain marginalized.”
The deficiencies among teachersAccording to CIASE figures, only half of the children who enter school finish the six primary grades, and only 86 out of every 100 even enter the system, of which 43 finish sixth grade, most of them from the upper or middle classes. Those left on the wayside are put to work by their parents as soon as they are physically able. Out of every 100 children who enter public school, 50 complete their primary education and only 25 to 30 of those start secondary school. There are also too few secondary schools in the country, most of which are in the municipal capitals, leaving many young people from rural areas with no access.
“In recent years,” Vanessa tells me, “the education system has prioritized reforming the methods, the way of teaching students, but not what they’re taught. For a good while reforms were made to primary education so that all teachers would use the constructivist method. That’s fine, but they left out basic things: there are classrooms where the teacher can’t distinguish between a numerator and a denominator when working with fractions and makes spelling mistakes when writing on the board. These deficiencies among teachers are crucial. In addition, it’s been a long time since we’ve produced textbooks in Nicaragua, and those distributed five or six years ago have been running out and falling apart. The schools don’t have any new academic texts, let alone stories or universal literature texts.”
Then she tells me the worst part: there’s a shortage of resources in the education system and those available are inefficiently invested: “I’ve visited the libraries in the teacher training schools, where primary school teachers are trained, and it surprises me that their only books are from the Soviet Union, donated in the eighties. Some might be interesting, but most are out of date. They’ve been there 25 years. There are no modern science books. It’s true that books have gotten a lot more expensive so the schools have problems updating their libraries while teachers can’t afford their own books with such low salaries, but something has to be done to overcome this deficiency. It’s critical.”
The brain’s “hard disk”:Imagining the national education system as a great school full of teachers who should be pupils because they’re stunted by such enormous deficiencies, I want to know more about what’s meant by “reading comprehension.” What’s the mental process in the first years of primary education that gives us the capacity to understand a paragraph of written language, thus conditioning our future capacity to understand a whole book?
Understanding what you’re reading
There are studies that measure children’s capacity to read and write. As Vanessa Castro, “This study started to be applied in Africa, and then was translated into Spanish and applied in Peru. With the help of the Research Triangle Institute (RTI) and funds from the US Agency for International Development (USAID), we wanted to see if it was applicable in Nicaragua. We did it in the Miskitu language on the Caribbean coast and in Spanish. First we visited 47 schools as a pilot project—one day in each school—in October and November 2007, doing a short oral test to make sure the child understood it. That first validation test was given to about 2,200 girls and boys. Then we corrected the errors and did it again, still with support from USAID and RTI, this time in 125 schools.
“From the test in Spanish we did with 6,700 children in April and May of this year, we demonstrated that the poorer the children are, the harder it is for them to master reading and writing. We measured the test according to letters read in one minute, words read in one minute and a dictation they were to write down. Then we measured reading comprehension, asking questions about what they had read. According to the ideal global standard, which is now fixed, especially with figures from Cuba and Chile, which head up the field, children should be reading 46 to 60 words a minute by the end of second grade, because in the learning process the human brain follows it should be able to process around 7 items in its short-term memory in 12 seconds: first letters, then words, then sentences.”
“If children don’t manage to process that amount of letters, words and sentences in a normal time,” continues Vanessa, “the information doesn’t pass onto their ‘hard disk’ of medium- and long-term memory. This means that if they can’t read 60 words when in second grade, they forget what they read at the beginning of the paragraph by the time they finish it. If they don’t get past that figure they’ll have very limited comprehension. And, of course, if you don’t understand what you’re reading, what interest could you have in reading? Fluid reading must be relatively fast and precise for the information provided by the written text to enter the brain’s ‘hard disk’ where it’s stored and understood. If children don’t read over half of the 60 words it’s very hard for them to understand the text and if they stumble over it, it’s even more complicated to understand.”
A country of functional illiteratesThe study found “severe problems” in the seven Miskitu-speaking schools visited, where over 30% of the children, including those from third grade, couldn’t read the standard 60 words per minute. In the Pacific schools studied—from Boaco, Carazo and Managua—the children were “a little better.”
Vanessa told me about another problem: “If children reach third grade without having turned reading into a habit, if in other words the reading process hasn’t become automatic, the probabilities of learning well in the fourth, fifth or sixth grade are enormously reduced. That will later be the huge limitation we see reflected in university test results, where many students don’t pass the entry exams largely due to problems with reading comprehension. And everything’s related, because how are you going to understand a mathematical problem if you can’t understand a complex text? It’s a chain of problems. The tendency is for most children to leave school during fourth grade. They will be functional illiterates, people who will can sign their name, read a roadside sign, but not understand an article in a newspaper, let alone read a novel or enjoy a poem. It’s a very complex problem, but it can be solved by stressing the first grades and teacher training.”
Is she pessimistic faced with this evidence, all these figures? “I’m an incurable optimist,” confesses Vanessa Castro. “That’s my virtue and my defect. I think it’s a question of establishing priorities. Nicaragua’s not rich and our investment in education reflects our poverty and lack of political will to prioritize education. Our governments don’t seem to have fully grasped the relationship between the country’s education level and its economic and cultural development.”
It’s not enough to go to schoolVanessa explains to me that recent studies show that “getting ahead in this world” doesn’t just involve going to school for at least nine years. You also need to master the basic primary school procedures in three areas considered “instrumental”: language, which provides the logic to communicate, express yourself and understand; mathematics, which gives you the conceptual capacity for abstraction so you can evolve in the world; and natural sciences, which give you the capacity to analyze, and to search for and discover new knowledge.
Scoring less than 400 points in the PISA reading comprehension tests in ninth grade means that a pupil hasn’t mastered the basic procedures of language, mathematics and science. The majority of students in Latin America and Africa are in that group, in contrast to students in Finland, Sweden, Korea, Ireland and most European countries, 95% of whose students score over 400.
“We have over half below that mark,” says Vanessa. “As a result, underdeveloped countries like Nicaragua find it harder to get ahead because most of our population hasn’t learned at school, even those who went to school. They spent hard-earned money on education, invested time in it, but couldn’t master the basics, and that affects the whole country. The issue of educational quality must be on the first page of the governments’ agenda. It’s not just about everyone going to school, but also about school getting through to everyone. Technical careers like engineering, which requires a lot of mathematics, are some of the most useful ones for developing the economy, but what multiplies in Nicaragua is the mass of lawyers.”
The young Nicaraguans who do read and writeWith what I’ve learned about the process that develops in the brain related to reading comprehension, I see a compromised future. We’re not up to the demands of a competitive world, of countries with economic and cultural brain power based on the educational training they provide their students, which is highly superior to ours. In any case, I find it paradoxical that a country with so many writers and poets reads so little.
As my final stop, I go find a well-known writer with a long trajectory. I want to hear her reflections, ask her how we can get young people more involved in reading, investigate why it has become almost trendy for young readers to be writers.
Vidaluz Meneses is a writer, a librarian, a member of the Nicaraguan Writers’ Association (ANIDE) and vice president of the Nicaraguan Writers’ Center (CEN). She believes that young people do read, but on the Internet, although she does admit that it’s somewhat excessive to read a whole book on the Internet. “The youth is attracted to the Internet on the one hand because it’s one of the demands of the modern world,” she says, “and on the other because the universities send their students to do research on it.”
Vidaluz agrees with the other people I’ve interviewed when she says that “if the parents read and the children see them reading, a lot has already been achieved, as I’ve learned as a mother and grandmother. Children enjoy it when you read them books, and they create a strong emotional link with you as you’re reading to them. Behind the reading, they value the fact you’re paying attention to and communicating with them. That’s going to influence subsequent reading habits.” She also thinks that public libraries “democratize reading, because not everyone has access to books at home.”
What kind of reader is Vidaluz the author? “It’s important to be aware that, as humanity advances, there are so many books we can’t read them all, what with the literature currently in fashion, the best sellers, the classics, historical books, cultural magazines, etc. One ends up classifying and measuring out what one reads, establishing priorities. We read what we need for the work we do, then we read for pleasure, to fill our innermost spaces, then we read to update ourselves, to increase our cultural baggage, our heritage as self-taught people. Finally, and probably most importantly, we read to produce, we read to then write.”
“Will books survive?” I ask this reader and writer. “Books will always survive,” she tells me confidently. “We can’t deny the advantages of the Internet, but we have to find a balance. The risk we run is that the information on the Internet isn’t always qualitatively verifiable. The web is an excellent source for consultation and more and more people are joining the mass of Internauts. The internet has a quality that physical books don’t have: it offers you the possibility to interact. There are forums where you can post your opinion, blogs where you can offer different points of view and multimedia information to be exchanged. That’s very exciting for young people; it makes the medium more attractive and in some way induces the habit of reading. What’s worrying about the Internet is that it damages spelling and impoverishes language. Chats become a messaging channel in which language is deformed. Like texting on the cell phone. Blogs play an interesting role in affirming youth identity. Young people find a way to project themselves to others on them; it helps them express themselves.”
When a book is dissectedIn Nicaragua, most people live on two dollars a day or less, so buying a book isn’t among their plans. What can be done about this? “In recent years,” Vidaluz tells me, “some of us writers have decided to participate in reading sessions at education and cultural centers. This links people to literature. People are more interested in reading when the author approaches the people. There are elements of curiosity, affection, empathy… or antipathy.”
Vidaluz also refers to young writers: “Many young people are currently managing to publish their books before they’re 25, something that was unusual in our times. We’re achieving this in the CEN with the support of Norway and through literary competitions.” She has real hope of an incipient generational changing of the guard. “Young people are going out to write and presenting themselves in literary gangs, just like rockers,” she explains. “There are several young, enthusiastic literature groups: 400 elefantes, Literatosis (now known as Marca Acme), Grupo Macuta… These are young people who read and also write. I’m one of those who believe that young people are reading. We’ve recently had the Central American Book Fair, the National Fair, the International Poetry Festival… This gives the youth choices and places to make contact with contemporary literature.”
Like my previous interviewees, Vidaluz stresses the role played by schools and teachers: “The schools have a lot of responsibility in encouraging children and young people either to become lovers of reading or to hate books. A lot depends on the teachers. They are capable of dissecting a book like a decomposed corpse into phonemes, morphemes, and so many other affected, tired, complex, rigid, boring terms. All of this distances people from the pleasure of reading. They take apart whole works with that cold set of instruments. Doing technical analysis permanently distances people from reading. But there are unforgettable teachers who can bring you close to literature forever. The Chilean Fidel Coloma González at the UNAN was one of them”.
From one generation to anotherVidaluz is apprehensive about the literary market. “I think the market turns everything into merchandise and often promotes authors who don’t have any great quality while real literary gems go unnoticed by young people. I wonder about the literary value of Paulo Coelho, who has become a sales phenomenon. I suppose he’s filling a spiritual vacuum among the young and that’s why he’s so well liked. Harry Potter is another consumer phenomenon, which fills children’s imagination and allows them an escape from reality. Putting it on film allows children to doubly enjoy of a literary work.”
How does this generation’s reading differ from that of Vidaluz’s generation? “Today there’s growing interest in reading foreign authors and young people feel the need to learn English,” she argues. “It’s another emerging reality. There’s so much interconnection in the world today, so many publishers, so many international competitions, so many prizes that it would appear youth has a lot to choose from. But there’s also a lot of junk. I’ve observed that the youth prefers the consecrated authors. Today’s youth reads a lot of James Joyce. In the sixties and seventies, my generation didn’t read that kind of author. We were more marked by magical realism and social commitment. Now there’s been a turn towards intimacy, inner feelings, towards Marcel Proust, to cite another author.”
Not all is lostDo I have any conclusions? I think that not all is lost. Although young people are immersing themselves slowly but deeply in the virtual waters of the Internet, the small groups that do read are exercising their ten rights as readers. It doesn’t matter if they choose contemporary literature or prefer to dust off the classics after plucking them from their tombs. It doesn’t matter if they think that writing from an early age, influenced by the old vanguards and engaging in so many literary competitions will turn them into premature intellectuals and new writers. What does matter, according to Daniel Pennac, is that the verb “to read” doesn’t work in the impertive, an aversion it shares with verbs such as “to love” and “to dream.” The commands “love me!” or “dream!” just don’t work. Nor does “Read!” You can insist “I’m ordering you to read, dammit! Go up to your room and do it!” but it won’t get you anywhere.
Children and young people will read more and then still more if our educational system opens up to literature from all eras, including the modern one, and improves its public school policies. The more seriously the indicators in the studies on reading and writing are taken, the more readers will gravitate to the libraries. And if that happens, young people will find raw materials in the world of books with which to imagine a better world than the one we know and we’ll have a better understanding of what awaits us in the 21st century, our century.
William Grigsby Vergara is a graphic design student.