Books, books, all around… that none of us will read?

Writers get alarmed by business meetings, especially when their books get crushed into numbers, pesos and spreadsheets to such an extent, they’re in danger of disappearing altogether. I stared out of the window, wondering how long my Banana Skin Flip Flops writers’ block would last. No-one has ever reduced BSFF to numbers, pesos and spreadsheets, by the way, which may be for the best.

“Did you understand all that?” Sergio asked, after the meeting. My co-author is an economist and the only one who listens to the numbers stuff.

“I heard the part about us being a bestseller,” I said. “But there aren’t that many English books on sale in Colombia.”

Sergio laughed.

“We’re not just a bestseller among the English books,” he said. “We’re a bestseller in Colombia, full stop.”

“That’s ridiculous,” I frowned.

He laughed again.

“What did you expect Vicki?” he said. “Colombians don’t read.”

Don’t get me wrong. I love our little book and I’m proud of it. But it’s exactly that. A little book. It sells in the thousands. Not the tens of thousands, not the millions, not even close.

So how on Earth is it a bestseller? Can it be true that Colombia, a country I love above all others, a country that has given me the courage, freedom and conviction to keep dreaming and keep writing, is the worst country in the world I could have chosen to do exactly that? Am I a writer, writing in a country that is averse to reading? Am I a complete idiot?

That very day I read a brilliant essay by a friend of mine, Tara, called That Guy Who Died, which focuses on Colombia’s relationship with books. She said that in the days after Gabriel García Márquez’s death – bearing in mind he was one of the greatest writers in the Spanish language and Colombia’s only Nobel Laureate – people went to libraries in Colombia and asked: “You got any books by that guy who died?” At least the intention was there.

I don’t think my Colombian friends read any less than my English ones. I have a Colombian friend who reads a book a week and when I asked him how he manages it he said: “Perhaps I’ll read for three hours on a Saturday? Maybe an hour on weekdays?” I was impressed and yet a study by Colombia’s national statistics department (DANE) found that Colombians read less than one book a year, compared to “Europeans” who supposedly read 17. My Colombian friends are far from average, but I guess I knew that already.

I am not the best at looking after myself, as you know, and when I do feel a little down, or under the weather, I have to do a little audit. Most people ask themselves if they are eating well or sleeping enough. I ask myself: “Are you exercising?” and “Are you reading?” because I’ve learned that I need both my mind and body in shape to feel at my very best.

We live one top of one another in a big city that rarely falls silent and sometimes, I think reading and exercising are the only privacy I get. I am not especially fit (I’m grateful if I manage an hour in the gym twice a week) and I rarely read for more than half an hour each day, but I protect that time fiercely. No-one intrudes inside my head on the treadmill and no-one intrudes upon my book either, and that is what keeps me content.

And there’s something special about books, isn’t there? Books are private. When you finish a good book, you hold it tight to your chest and breathe deeply with the gratitude and happiness that comes from knowing you’re the only person who knows what it contains. You can’t get that from a movie. Movies are meant to be shared. Books are your little secret.

That’s why I want others to unlock the joy of literature. Not for education, not for culture, not to bump a little book from the bestseller lists that shouldn’t be there until it sells into the millions. But because I think reading is good for your mental health. And the worst thing is, it’s a skill. If you don’t practice now, you’ll never get to the good stuff.

Why don’t Colombians read? Well a third of our people live below the poverty line – surviving on less than $1.25 a day – so bound bits of paper, heaven forbid, are not their priority, even if they did go to school. And books are expensive here. They’re plastic covered luxury items sold in palaces of intimidation. Some books do get pirated, of course, but dodgy DVDs are a quarter of the price and do a much better trade. We even have a law that prevents taxation on our books, but that’s done little to drive down prices. A skinny paperback in Colombia can cost the same as ten three-course lunches. Go figure.

So, what can we do? You’re all readers, aren’t you? Perhaps we can’t storm into schools, bars and billiards halls, singing our love for the written word and shaking our pages around, but we can do our bit. Join sites like Goodreads, for example, and infect others with our enthusiasm for whatever we’re reading. We can encourage people we know to read – to their kids, to their grandparents – and spread the news of a secret we’re keeping a little too well. Join book clubs. Share books.

The Bogotá Book Fair is almost here and I’m launching a new book today, which makes me proud and happy. Foreigners in Colombia believe in Colombia. Our book tells their stories and will make you think again about a writer you know. It may just become a bestseller. But if Colombians start buying books, books written by girls and guys who’ve died and guys and girls who haven’t, and that drives down the prices and changes what the numbers mean, that’s okay with me. I’m secretly hoping they do exactly that.

Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.

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17 Comments

  1. Ric Dragon

    Funny, in the US, I think the vogue for reading has waxed and waned over time. Things like Book-of-the-Month club seemed to have quite an impact in its day; and then there’s Oprah, and the renewed love of book discussion clubs. Perhaps these things will occur in Colombia, too, at some point. Congrats on the latest addition; your Amazon author profile is going to grow!

  2. Orlando Guedez Calderin

    HELLO TERRIFIC Apart from FILBO, Where can I get the book? REGARDS

    Orlando Guedez Calderin Bogotá +57 316 449 33 35

  3. Courtenay Strickland

    Thought-provoking piece! As the mom of an almost four-year-old, I’ve been a bit stunned by the price of children’s books in Colombia. I am not sure what’s behind that, but it seems prohibitive. To be fair, I have few purchases on which to judge it… after buying just a few pricey books for him, I started bringing most back from trips to the US. Anyway, it gave me a new perspective on the cost of reading, and of introducing children to it. It’s clear that some Colombian institutions have found creative ways around it: our preschool in Medellin asks all the kids to bring one book at the beginning of the school year, and then each Friday each child picks out a book to take home just for the weekend. It’s a great way for the kids to get regular, low-cost exposure to new books. Plus, at the end of the year, all the books are donated so that kids who have none can benefit.

  4. cafealeman3690

    Very insightful piece. I have skimmed through a few bookstores in Bogota with my girlfriend who is Colombian and loves to read, and things you wouldn’t think she would be interested in. Physics books, a variety of sciences. a lot of interesting topics but not what you would think an attractive woman would read on regular basis. Heck she even loves chess! I say this because in the states these types of women are an extreme rarity. So it got me thinking if this is the norm on the streets of Bogota or did I just find a rare gem. I was beginning to think that all Colombians are voracious readers like her but after reading this piece I now wonder. By the way any chance I get I still promote your book whether they are Colombian or some gringo interested in learning something new. I mentioned your book to a friend of mine whose mother is from Cali and he bought it for her over Chrstmas and of course she loved it. I always say thanks after reading your blog but just so you know I always mean it.

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      Hey Harry! Thanks so much for all your support as ever and I’m so pleased things are going so well for you! I guess the point is never to take Banana Skin Flip Flops too seriously, it takes all sorts to make a world, but overall the numbers are down so we need to give reading a boost, somehow!

  5. Emily

    I’ve been into many houses of friends here in Colombia, and not one had a shelf full of books. I’ve always thought either Colombians don’t buy into that ‘hoarding’ books thing, or they just don’t buy books, and I mean that because of how expensive they are.

    A week or so ago I found this book:

    UK published/imported, I’d been looking for for so long to complete a collection, it’s a hardback beautiful edition, for just $35,000, the same as it is in the UK. To me this is fair, I’ve found skinny ugly editions in Books and Books and other places for $50,000+. I saw your book nearby (just 2 copies left!) for over $40,000!

    I do wonder though, do you ever include more negative views on the country? I work with many people who are dying to find a way out, foreigners and Colombians alike, they always ask why I came, why don’t I go when I have the chance? I have friends doing all they can to pass English tests to go to university in the UK and Europe, trying to find a way to stay there afterwards, and they’d be the ones buying books about their country in English. I don’t know if they’d feel a book with 100% positive stories would be something genuine or something they can relate to.

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      I agree entirely Emily! Do you think Banana Skin Flip Flops is 100% positive? I can’t say, because often others interpret the things I write in ways I never imagined (I have discovered that over the past few years. The written word really does take on a life of its own) I can certainly think of a few entries that have felt far from positive to me.

      I assume you haven’t read Colombia a comedy of errors (which has been described to me as “Banana Skin Flip Flops evil twin”) perhaps because of the cover price, which I also understand. I can’t even suggest you flick through it next time you are in a bookshop and tell me what you think, because our books are all covered in plastic! Perhaps if you look at some of the comments on Amazon here, you might get more of a flavour of the book. One comment I have heard many times is: “Everything in that book is true, but why did you have to write it? I would never want foreigners to read that book.”

      As for Was Gabo an Irishman? I wouldn’t say that was 100% positive either, not when some of the essayists speak about the death threats they have received and others speak about Colombian men and their “love sickness” (inspired by Love In The Time of Cholera) You can buy WGAI very cheaply on Kindle here. But I would also give Colombia a comedy of errors a go, you might just be surprised.

  6. Faye Griffiths

    I was also surprised by the DANE report because my Colombian friends on average here way out-read my British mates . No offence, British friends, but they easily do – and you´re probably watching X-Factor or something as we speak!.

    I wondered a lot about this. As you say, the poverty and near poverty that so many live in is a prime reason for low uptake of reading here. Perhaps the fact that a large percentage of the country would still be classed as rural communities too – far from bookshops and libraries. But then in the cities I think it´s also difficult to read a lot when people work the longest hours in the continent, and not just poor people, but everybody really. I wouldn´t feel safe reading on the bus unless I had a seat, and even then I think you still need to have your wits about you and not be too engrossed in something else!

    I think looking historically at the way money is made here is also a factor. Architecture, engineering and finance are probably your biggest professions. They don´t require the reading of much literature (although of course they require loads of other reading).

    Friends have told me that there was a vibrant literary intelligencia scene in the 70s in the cities of Cali and Medellin, akin to Mexico City and BA. But those cities were the victims of the drugs mafiasiation and the culture changed, perhaps leading to a mini brain-drain too.

    Then I spoke about this DANE thing with a colleague, a terribly readerly fellah. Like all intelligent people, he reduced the issue to something very simple to understand: it rather depends what you are reading.
    And, although I think all reading is good and try not to be a snob about literature, you can´t deny that you could read 50 Shades of Reversing Feminism at least 17 times in the time you could * tries to think of an intellectual author she´s recently read* read something by Naomi Klein or Owen Jones. And it´s not just about how much you read, but – as you say- whether you enjoy what you´re doing so much that you put off making your dinner until you´re starving because you can´t stop reading. I think kindles have helped to bring in more of a fixation with quantity of reading than passion and absorption.

    So whilst I think we should ask these questions about why some countries read more etc, I´ve heard quite a few British people here make far less examined, quite throwaway comments about how Colombia doesn´t read, and sometimes it makes me feel very defensive. I think of my geeky mates and my eccentric father- in -law who spends all his meagre pension on books, and I want to ask people if they´ve really thought about the issue deeply before passing comments which have a sub-text of cultural superiority. I think this article is very well examined, so I hope it gets more foreigners thinking about what the complexities behind these really simplified headlines are.

  7. Ceri

    I live in quite a poor, rural community here in S. Korea and most people don’t read here either and that has a lot to do with the price of books.

    I found books to be super expensive when living in D.F. too and even found myself not reading very much because of this. Now I have a Kindle and it’s a lifesaver. Who knew books could be so cheap? It does make me wonder about the kind of profits the author makes though.

  8. Edy

    yes, books are crazy expensive in Colombia, this is probably one of the main reasons. Plus, it might be fascinating to investigate until when was the oral culture tradition still strong in Colombia. It’s an obvious question when you meet indigenous people I guess.

  9. Fred

    Hi, you forgot to mention one important option to read, eBooks, and this option is the future; me myself have some thousands of this type, mostly in English language and, paying almost nothing. Some of the books I’m now reading are: “ Conceptions of Cosmos From Myths to the Accelerating Universe: A History of Cosmology H. KRAG; SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS. C. Rovelli; INTRODUCTION TO METAPHYSICS. J. GRONDIN”, among others.
    I think that in some years this reading style will become more popular here in Colombia (and probably worldwide). Some reasons:

    – All you need to have is an Internet connection (I’m aware and respectful of Copy Rights stuff, but many things will have to change according to our new world).

    -Due to ‘Plan Nacional de Bilingüismo’ more and more people are becoming literate in English in Colombia.

    -With the end of the war, we’ll have even more resources for education, and maybe more and best readers.

    Saludos desde Medellín.

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