Bookseller Abroad: Beth Martin Observes Books in Mexico

We take books for granted. As booksellers, as Americans, and as readers, there are books available to us whenever we want them. Except when they aren’t –when they are not available to individuals and not available to a whole country of people.
            I spend my summers teaching English to teachers in Mexico, in the beautiful, culturally rich colonial city of Morelia, in the state of Michoacán. A city with one and a half million people, eight universities, four Wal-Marts, and few books.  It has been my experience that Mexico does not have a culture of readers or reading. They can read. First grade teachers work hard to teach children to read and then that’s about it. It is similar to the Latin and chemistry I learned in school but really never use in my day–to–day life. They don’t read and there are many reasons why they don’t.
            There are some public libraries but you cannot check out the books. The books do not leave the building. There is little incentive to spend the day in the library using the outdated materials, mostly textbooks.
            There are bookstores on the streets. You approach a counter and a clerk takes your textbook list and fills the order. No impulse novel purchases because of shiny covers!
            Some private elementary schools have books. But typically I carry more books in my suitcase than I’ve seen in any Mexican school. And again, the books do not ever leave the school.
            One of the biggest obstacles to owning books is cost. If you are able to find a paperback it will cost at least twice what it does here and to purchase a book in English will cost three times the U.S. cost. There is a whole pirating industry for copying books at a reasonable cost and the teachers in my classes spend every break running to make copies of all the materials I bring.
            Not knowing where my next book is coming from makes me more than a little panicky inside. Always having at least one book in my purse makes me feel more secure. But for someone living in a culture where you do not see people reading and did not grow up taking books for granted, you do not miss that which you never had.
            However, in the past few years I have begun to notice small changes. The teachers I work with all have personal laptops and when we discuss reading in class, they are eager to share websites for downloading books. Sometimes I see someone on a long-distance bus reading a book. Towns will occasionally host roving book fairs with books for purchase. And a friend of mine just posted on Facebook that a bookstore has opened in her small town-big news!
            We must not take books for granted. Not everyone has access to the depth and breadth of rich literature that we have. Be grateful that you know from where your next book is coming.
~Beth Martin
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