How Much of Your Salary Would You Spend on a Book?

Last year my husband, Adam Stumacher, and I moved to Guatemala so we could work on our novels. That was the plan. Our first week there, he worked diligently, often using Freedom on his computer so he could stay focused on his daily word count goal. Me? Not so much. Here’s the thing: I get distracted when I am in Guatemala. For example, if I am in a café and an eleven-year-old girl serves me coffee, I wonder why she isn’t in school. And then I feel I am that little girl. Or at least I could be. I search for my face in her face, her so-black-it-looks-blue hair, high cheekbones, and big ears. If my parents hadn’t moved to the United States in the seventies, how would my life have turned out?

We were studying at Proyecto Lingüístico Quezalteco, a social-justice language school in the city of Quetzaltenango. Wooden tables and chairs were set up along the perimeter of the courtyard whose yellow walls were decorated with portraits of Che Guevara and Nobel laureate Miguel Ángel Asturias. One poster read: Coca-Cola, las aguas negras del capitalismo. While Adam reviewed the simple past tense with his teacher, I sat a few tables away with my instructor, Manuel, working on translations. Manuel and I were both in our early thirties, both voracious readers. Only, I learned very quickly, this passion for books meant different things in the contexts of our lives.

Manuel had assigned me homework the night before. I was to translate “Homings” and “Mapamundi” from Eduardo Galeano’s The Book of Embraces. English to Spanish. He had given me photocopies of both. The only copy of the book on hand was a tattered paperback that lived in the school library and could only be checked out by a teacher or student for a maximum of two weeks. I had carried these photocopies to a café by the park the previous afternoon. That was when I ordered coffee from the eleven-year-old girl.

“I didn’t do the homework,” I said.

He took a sip from his water bottle. Manuel drank only clear liquids. He didn’t even allow himself coffee. He was in the middle of a thirty-day cleanse.

Vaya pues,” he said. “Let’s translate this one paragraph now.”

They return and inhabit the houses that were their homes and are now war ruins. There, where grandmother died and the first goal and the first kiss took place, they build the fire for the mate and the roast, while the dogs scratch at the ground searching for bones they had buried.

These two sentences set us off on a seventy-minute discussion about –among other topics—Guatemala’s U.S.-funded 36-year civil war, indigenous communities, memory, fear, politics, the price of coffee, and libraries. Over the course of the conversation, I learned there was only one small public library in Quetzaltenango, a city with a population of over 300,000. All books must be read while seated on the narrow benches inside the building for fear they wouldn’t be returned if checked out.

“What about bookstores?” I asked.

Manuel scoffed. The blue and green fabric of his scarf moved up and down. His black hair was cut short to his scalp. He told me that a month ago he had cut off fifteen inches. Maybe that was part of the cleanse, too.

“Books are impossibly priced,” he says.

In Guatemala, a single book costs a quarter of the average monthly salary for a university-educated professional. Manuel told me he earned roughly two thousand Quetzales a month, a decent salary by local standards. A book—any single volume of the Harry Potter series, for example –  costs five hundred Q. As he spoke, my mind wandered to those wide tables cluttered with discount hard covers and paperbacks inside U.S. bookstores, and to the closet at Ms. Magazine where I’d interned one summer. We interns were encouraged to take home review copies stacked to the ceiling. I always did.

Manuel explained that even if books were more affordable, he couldn’t access the real books he wanted to read: Umberto Eco, Colin Wilson, Allen Ginsburg. He had read—voraciously—all the literature excerpts and interviews in the Sunday edition of a national newspaper. But he never had the pleasure of holding the actual books in his hands.

During my time in Guatemala, I learned of organizations such as DESGUA, Miracles in Action, and PLQ itself, that are working to address this problem through community development, building libraries, and other efforts.

After returning home to Boston, I have come to realize that technology may offer other solutions. This thought occurred to me one humid day in July during a field trip s part of Grub Street’s Young Adult Writers Summer Fellowship Program. We brought a group of students to the Harvard Book Store, where we sat in fold-up chairs in the blissfully air-conditioned space and listened to Jeff Mayersohn, co-owner along with his wife, Linda Seamonson, introduce us to the Espresso Book Machine. Mayersohn explained that the machine, nicknamed Paige M. Gutenborg, is a twenty-first century printing press that can produce library-quality, paperback editions from a massive inventory of digital titles in multiple languages.

As I watched a book being printed, collated, covered, and bound within a few minutes, I thought of Manuel. I pictured his face as he finally held his own copy of The Book of Embraces.

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About Jennifer De Leon

Jennifer De Leon is the winner of the 2011 Fourth Genre Michael Steinberg Essay Prize. Her stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Ms., Briar Cliff Review, Poets & Writers, Guernica, The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010, and elsewhere. She has published author interviews in Granta and Agni, and she has been awarded scholarships and residencies from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Macondo, and others. The editor of the anthology, Wise Latina: Writers on Higher Education (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), she is also working on a memoir and a novel.
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4 Responses to How Much of Your Salary Would You Spend on a Book?

  1. Michelle says:

    Jenn, another great piece. My husband and I have talked about this issue extensively– I work at a school that actually does have a library, BUT they don’t let girls take books home or check them out. Go figure. Have you heard of the organization, The Riecken Foundation? They work in Guatemala also and help build community libraries in rural villages. http://www.riecken.org/

  2. Jenn De Leon says:

    Thanks for letting me know about Riecken, Michelle. I will check out the organization. As far as the library not allowing the girls to take home books…sigh. I guess having a library in the first place is a start, right?

  3. Lucas says:

    Very interesting article. It seems as if things in Guatemala are even more complicated than here in Peru.

    Part of the problem here is that so many of the books are imported from Spain, which uses a fixed pricing system. This system helps independent bookstores in Spain and other countries remain competitive and thus stay afloat, but it becomes a thornier issue when exporting a book that costs 16 or 20 Euros (plus shipping costs, etc., etc.) to a country where the minimum wage is just over US$250 a month.

    I have written a bit on what new digital technology may mean for the Latin American market, and the indirect but positive effects that could have for English speakers, over here.

  4. Ru Freeman says:

    How poetic that you were discussing Galeano. Another terrific look-see into a different world.

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