Despite the decreasing habit of reading in recent years, in Cuba books have been and are a cultural object placed in the hands of the population ever since in a speech Fidel Castro gave in the first years of the revolutionary triumph he pronounced the phrase: we don’t tell the people to believe but rather to read.
This intention was put in place in 1961 with the creation of the National Printing Complex. Writer AlejoCarpentier was designated to head it, representing a guarantee for the spread in Cuba of the best of universal and national literature.
This is so much so that the first book published by that institution was the great monument of Spanish literature, Don Quixote de la Mancha, which had a massive print run and was sold at only 40 centavos, something unprecedented in a world where the publishing industry has always been costly and only available to those who could afford the luxury of buying in bookstores works that do not have the necessary quality.
Classics from all parts of the world, including great U.S. authorsand copies of Cuban writers who had to pay for publishing them from their own money before the creation of the Printing Complex, were at the reach of a people who that same 1961 had carried out a major literacy campaign and had declared the island the first territory free of illiteracy in the Americas.
Private used-book sellers still have those first copies that were the symbol of the great publishing movement that existed on the island before the arrival of the special period in the 1990s.
The creation at the end of the 1960s of the Cuban Book Institute (ICL) was an important step for the publication of books in Cuba by creating specialised publishing houses like Arte y Literatura, for the universal production, and LetrasCubanas for the national.
Gente Nueva also appeared for children’s literature, a label which in Cuba is given great importance given its function of bringing books closer to children and young people to develop in them the pleasure and the need to read.
Other publishing houses existed outside the ICL, like Unión, of the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba, and the Casa de lasAméricas Publishing Collection belonging to the institution by the same name and specialising in making known the work of the continent’s most relevant authors.
After the crisis that occurred in the Cuban publishing industry in the 1990s, provincial editions were also created so that each Cuban province have one or more publishing houses fundamentally directed at spreading the work of local writers but that, with time, published acclaimed Cubans authors residing on the island and even some who do not live here but because of their quality deserved to be known in their country of origin.
It is true that in the last 20 years the price for books has gone up while the arrival of new technologies has led to a decrease in the habit of reading, especially among young people, a fact that the Cuban authorities are trying to overcome by resorting to numerous initiatives like digital books.
However, every year in February when the International Book fair is held throughout the country with the presence of numerous publishing houses from all over the world, the venues of this event are at times unable to contain the great avalanche of public attending them, which is a sign that not all is lost.
Something similar occurs with the traditional Book Saturdays held every week in the Historic Centre of the capital and which are also attended by numerous Havanans in search of novelties presented there by the Cuban publishing houses.
There are 330 bookstores in the country and a great number of private used-book sellers who place in the hands of consumers old books that no longer exist in the state-run outlets.
The absence in the latter of books of the great Cuban classics is one of the limitations of the work of the publishing industry in the country.
Authors like AlejoCarpentier, José Lezama Lima, DulceMaríaLoynaz and more recent otherslike Leonardo Paduraand Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, only appear on special occasions and one of the population’s demands is that their books always be in Cuban bookstores.
Notwithstanding recent years’ price increases, books in Cuba continue being relatively cheap if compared to other (almost all) countries in the world.
Literary contests contribute to the discovery and publication of new authors though the promotion and appearance of book reviews in the media is still very insufficient.
Some publishing houses have become independent enterprises, which obliges them to be self-sufficient and represent a danger for books to continue being in Cuba more than merchandise, an object of knowledge and spiritual enrichment. Let’s hope there is a way to avoid this. (2017)
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