On Reading and Taking Horses to Water

Book Shelves in a colonial home in Mexico

Several years ago, when Mexico introduced a law mandating a single price for books, it was argued that it might not make books cheaper, but would lead to more and better stocked stores and promote reading.

The controversial law, supported by an apparent majority of leaders of opinion, intellectuals, and publishers, was first blocked by a presidential veto on grounds that it flew in the face of competition and would push up book prices.

It was later passed by a supermajority vote that steamrolled the veto, and promulgated amid speeches  in favor of books and reading. Did it work?

Browsing through a number of bookstores in the capital shows that books in Mexico are quite expensive, and Spanish editions often more so than the original English versions. Books written in Spanish are also frequently more expensive than comparable works in the U.S. or the U.K.

Nominally more expensive, that is, so by applying the Big Mac index which takes into account average wages, book prices border on exorbitant.

It’s perhaps not surprising then that an assortment of survey findings collected and published on the website of the Nexos magazine – shows that only three out of 10 Mexicans had read at least one book in the past 12 months, compared with six Spaniards, and eight Britons.

And the chicken-and-egg dilemma remains: do people in Mexico not read because books are so expensive, or are books so expensive because people don’t read?

An educated guess would be the latter, which in turn may be supported by another of the survey trivia collected by Nexos: 38% of people in Mexico never read a newspaper, and 49% never read a magazine.

But only 15% prefer to watch television in their spare time, according to the list. And 25% of people borrow a newspaper to read.

Several conclusions are possible: You can’t trust surveys. Economic theory doesn’t apply to books.

PS: When U.S. bookseller Borders filed for bankruptcy, the talk was of competition from online sales and e-books causing the problem. Nothing suggests it was a lack of readers.

Mexico, as in many other things, would appear to be a case apart.

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