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OP-ED | 20-04-2019 10:09

Reading thoughts

The problems of the publishing industry are both structural and cyclical.

Easter should be a time to look beyond the incessant political and economic hurly-burly – it might seem more natural to write today about the electoral outlook in the wake of last Sunday’s Entre Ríos primary (Palm Sunday voting in the province of El Palmar national park) or assess the latest electorally driven government package’s chances of commercialised stagflation (a U-turn if ever there was one), but for today we shall refrain. Those scrupulously observing the rituals of what remains an essentially Christian festival (unlike the highly secularised Christmas) or Passover beginning yesterday will need no help in seeking a deeper meaning – especially with such a stern test of faith as the Paris blaze ravaging Notre Dame cathedral on the first day of Holy Week – but what about everybody else?

For a more pluralistic touchstone which has become one of this city’s proudest traditions, we recommend the 45th International Book Fair, which will be inaugurated in Palermo this coming Thursday. Politics and economics and religion will all be there for those who cannot live without them but so much else besides. This mass event draws over a million visitors annually with an estimated nine million publications either on display or catalogued and yet, in the final analysis at any given moment, it is all about the unique interaction between one individual and a collection of pages, replicated countless times.

Yet beyond this general recommendation, it is not the purpose of this editorial to function as an unpaid advertisement for the Book Fair, seeking to impress the reader with a wealth of details about the number of stands, the famous writers coming, this year’s partnership with Barcelona, etc. The fair is a showcase for a city which never fails to impress foreign visitors for its extraordinary density of bookshops (more than in all of Brazil, it is said) and yet it also forms part of the real world, with protagonists who must survive beyond the three weeks of the event until the next Book Fair. No book can exist without a publisher and any book would be pointless without a reader – yet both publishers and readers risk becoming endangered species in today’s world.

The problems of the publishing industry are both structural and cyclical. Even in the short term the decline goes beyond the business cycle – between 2016 (with negative growth) and 2017 (with positive growth) the number of books published fell from 63 million (with 52 million sold) to 51 million (with 39 million sold) despite overall economic recovery, falling further last year to 45 million amid the general recession. Devaluation has grossly inflated paper costs in particular but even with the cheapest possible raw material a grim present faces a direr future in the face of online competition – the threat posed to the publishing industry by the digital revolution should need no further explanation, and both publishers and readers need to start adjusting to the inevitable.

Modern technology is creating problems on the demand side as well as supply. Traditionally reading and writing have been the indispensable startingpoint for all education but PISA scholastic aptitude tests have shown that 52-53 percent of students completing secondary school do not understand what they read, never mind the numerous dropouts – they can fit the letters together to read the words but it goes no further. This functional illiteracy is far from incompatible with an advanced computer literacy – these youngsters usually know their way around tomorrow’s world but that is no joy for book-lovers.

Yet no end in sight for the next three weeks with over a million people thronging into the Book Fair as the Palermo exhibition grounds become The Aleph of Jorge Luis Borges (the author recently misnamed by the Spanish monarchy) – a point of space which contains the entire universe.

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