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.”
“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.