A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Reading Takes A Holiday
Monday, October 05, 2009

When Christopher Columbus made landfall on San Salvador ( Watlin Island) on October 12, 1492 he observed some of the inhabitants of the island breathing-in little pencil-like tubes that seemed to be on fire. The “Indians” were inhaling tobacco through their noses. While these “New World aboriginals” might have been having their nicotine hits for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years, the habit became widespread once Columbus returned with his exotic findings.

I would like to think that a habit that became “known” by the rest of the world in 1492 is on its last legs now that it is increasingly becoming difficult to even smoke out in the open in some countries and cities. There will be an end to smoking tobacco in a near future.

After reading several articles on how books are being modified to be interactive and will contain video, etc I wonder if reading as we know it will be another habit of mankind that will cease to exist in a very near future.

For years when I was living in Mexico City in the 60s and 70s some of us would laugh at the statistics of the PRI (the ruling party of the time) that gave us glowing predictions on how illiteracy was disappearing quickly. At the time buses in Mexico City were painted in certain colours and they had names like El Mariscal Sucre, Lomas Hipódromo or the extremely long blue-lined Circuito Hospitales, Cuarteles, Tlalnepantla y Anexas. The purpose of the colours and the names that could be memorized, is that many who rode these buses could not read, write or even discern the numbers of a bus. We laughingly pointed out that the statistics just proved that more people were able to read, from one year to the next, the sign on the bus. After that they did not read magazines, books or papers. They did not have the habit of reading.

If you go to an upscale Sanborns (an American style drugstore with restaurants and even more stuff than Walgreen’s) in any Mexican city you will find some of the best book selections around. Then you check the prices and notice that soft cover books go for 30 or more dollars in a peso equivalent. Reading is expensive. Comic books are far cheaper. And of course unlike our fair Vancouver and the rest of the lower mainland there are no real public libraries where you can take out a book and take it home. You have to read it in the library. Perhaps university libraries have modernized but for the average Mexican a book is a rare luxury.

If you consider what Gutenberg did for book publishing you can only wonder that nothing much has really changed in the over 500 years that have passed even if books are no longer chained to the wall.

I took my granddaughters to the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library. I have taken them before but not as much as I would like. Rebecca’s first question as we walked up the stairs was, “Who was the architect who built this? I don’t like it.” The tone was more or less set for the rest of the afternoon. We went to the Woodward Library for Youth downstairs. Both girls seemed to be lost. I have my doubts that either of them have been shown how to use a school library. I walked them around and Lauren (7) was reluctant to pull books out. Eventually Rebecca sat down to read to Lauren. This always cheers me up. When Rebecca got bored she moved by the stacks like a never ceasing hammerhead shark. I could not explain to her the wonder of the random finding of a book in a just-in section. “These books are too young for me. Let’s go somewhere else,” she told me. I showed her many books which were her level or even a bit harder but they were all “boring”. It would seem that a very young age we begin to judge books by their covers.

So we went upstairs to the teen section. But there was still no interest and the shark kept cruising with one question, “Where are the magazines?” Our day at the library ended with an open teen magazine and I became angry citing the travesty of reading a magazine one could find at London Drugs in the largest and nicest library (in spite of Moshe Safdie) in town. The final statement was, “I am reading. It is reading that is important, isn’t it?”

Reading a magazine must be a notch better than reading the name of the bus.


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