Costa Rica has the lowest rate of reading for pleasure of any literate country in the world. The geographically disparate Central American country is farm-rich, and the emphasis on literature and reading has never been a high point. I spent one year living in Costa Rica, and the “library” in San Jose was more like a museum (that never had any visitors). Fortunately, a small but slow movement is under way.
There are two chain bookstores, similar to the mall bookstores of America in the 1980s, that have steady traffic. There are also a number of very small, independent bookstores that have both Spanish and English books. Just like any other undertaking, it’s going to take the commitment of writers and readers to jumpstart a country’s love affair with literature.
Name One Costa Rican Author
There’s a good chance you can’t think of a single Costa Rican author, and with good reason. While many neighboring Latin American countries are filled with remarkable talent, Costa Rican authors are few and far between. Obviously, this isn’t from lack of talent. However, the idea of pursuing a degree or a career in the arts, especially writing, is completely foreign in this country.
I became friends with poet and professor Luis Chaves while living in Costa Rica. He’s referred to by some as the leading contemporary Costa Rican poet of our times. Our conversations about the state of literacy in the country were depressing at best. He works daily with students interested in the perceived romance of the life of a writer, but they have no idea how to move beyond the classroom.
The Bus Test
Take a bus, light rail or subway ride in any city in the U.S., and there’s a good chance you’ll see at least one person reading. The influx of readers like the Kindle has made reading on the fly even easier. However, I never saw a single person reading on public transportation in Costa Rica. The biggest pastime was playing games on phones.
It sounds basic, but instilling a love and appreciation of literature starts at a young age and at home. Many of my friends have bookcases spilling over with books. However, outside of Luis’ home, I never saw a single bookcase in Costa Rica. Clearly, changing how books are perceived in Costa Rica will take a complete change of thought.
What You Can Do
There are a few movements in Costa Rica attempting to address this issue. None of these projects are led by non-profits in the traditional sense. Instead, there’s a hotel on the outskirts of San Jose that collects and delivers books to outlets. There are arts festivals that include presentations by writers that are well-attended by the niche arts crowd.
The best thing any of us can do is to support Costa Rican writers. Buy their books, read their work and share your thoughts. A dialogue has yet to be opened in Costa Rica, but technology has made it easier for us to get involved. If you’ve never read a book or poem by a Costa Rican writer, try it out and become introduced to a new country of talent.