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Let them eat Kafka

The Economist. 25/10/2007.

The president enlists the literary critics.

Ask Chileans what they are reading and the answer will probably be Isabel Allende’s “La Suma de los Días”, a memoir by their country’s best-known living writer. If, that is, they read anything at all: in a recent survey, 45% said they never read books and 34% did so only occasionally.

Michelle Bachelet, Chile’s president, wants to change that. To do so, she has come up with a scheme to give 400,000 of the poorest families a maletín literario or box of up to nine books each.

After much pencil-chewing, a jury of literati this month selected a list of 49 works, from which officials will then choose those books they think appropriate for each family (each will get an encyclopaedia and/or a dictionary).

The list comprises fiction and poetry for both adults and children. It ranges from Chile’s Ms Allende and Pablo Neruda to J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” and Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”.

This is unexceptionable fare. But is the book box the best way to achieve Ms Bachelet’s laudable aim? It could help. While some older Chileans lack functional literacy or were alienated by a rigid school syllabus, younger ones may be deterred from buying books by their price. This averages $14, higher than the Latin American average and the equivalent of two weeks of bus fares to and from work in Santiago. If books were cheaper, more Chileans would read them: pirated copies sell on pavements, while a lending library that operates on the Santiago metro has been a big success. With massive orders, the government could force big discounts from publishers.

But critics see the book box as a populist gesture. “It’s like dropping bank notes out of the sky,” complains Verónica Abud of La Fuente, a charity that promotes reading. “Who says that a plumber in a poor district of Santiago will actually want to read Kafka?” For less than the estimated $11m cost of the book box, La Fuente has set up 60 libraries in schools and neighbourhoods. Since only 7% of Chileans belong to a library, there is scope for plenty more.

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