Saturday, December 10, 2011

I Love This Damned Country

As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, I'm currently on a business trip in Santiago Chile, living it up south of the equator... or something like that.  And whenever I travel (for work or leisure, it matters not), I always travel heavy on the books, generally twice as many as I'll ever get around to reading.  What can I say?  I have an irrational fear of finding myself without anything to read, so I overcompensate.

When I'm out on these trips, it inevitably happens that I wind up eating by myself at least half of the time.  So what do I do?  I bring a book.  I get enough strange looks back in the States when I do the same thing, but they mostly tend to be looks of pity--like, "Oh, poor guy.  Eating by himself and reading a book, of all things.  He must not have any friends."  Never mind the fact that books are better company than at least half of the people I know.  Let them think what they want, right?  What do I care?

Here in Chile it's the same--but different.  The weird looks are still there, but it's not a look of pity or derision.  It's more akin to awe.  Another thing I noticed is that there are a lot of parks around here, and whenever people have leisure time you can often find them in the park--laying the grass, strolling with their significant other, playing with their kids.  But in the two weeks since I have been here I can't once remember seeing anyone with a book in their hands.  Not an e-reader, not a dead tree book, nothing.  And I can't help thinking to myself, what the hell? (though I probably use a little more colorful wordage in my head)  Why don't these people read?  I know we're in the big city and all these folks are trendy and too cool for school and reading is probably not the "in" thing to do right now, but Christ, you'd think there'd be at least a couple book nerds in the group.  What gives?

Well, I found out on a tour I took over the weekend.  See, in Chile there are certain items that are considered "luxuries," things that we in America think of as normal everyday products--stuff like cars and jewelry and computers.  And wouldn't you know it, books are included in that list, too.  So what does this have to do with the price of tea in China?  As it so happens, the government imposes an additional 18% sales tax on all luxury goods, which makes books especially expensive and encourages Chileans to purchase fewer books and thereby decreases literacy... or at least the affordability of literacy.  I have a feeling that it has something to do with the colonial history of the country, the collective historical memory that only the rich people can afford to have books.  And since being rich is bad (at least in a hard socialism mindset), you need to pay extra for the privilege of not being a vapid twit.

What a pisser, huh?  Just another reason I'm happy to be from the good 'ole U-S-of-A, where the price of books is only driven by corporate profit margins. 

But not all is lost!  There's still a ray of hope, and, as usual, it came from the most unexpected place.  The other day I ordered room service, and a girl (I say girl--she was in her twenties at least) from the hotel brought up my tray.  She came into my room and set everything down and gave me the bill.  I had just started to sign the check when I heard her say, "You like to read?"  I looked up to see her ogling the stack of books on my desk with big 'ole googly eyes like she'd just seen... well, whoever it is that the girls go ga-ga over these days.  Matt Lauer? 

Anyway, I told her, why yes, I very much so like to read and asked the same question of her.  To which she nodded emphatically, telling me she had read every one of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series. She then proceeded to give her opinion on each one and then asked me what I thought of them.  I didn't have the heart to tell her that I hadn't read the damned things (and it'll be a cold day in hell when I do, I can assure you that), so I smiled and told her that, yes, they were quite wonderful books and Meyer was a gifted author. 

She went away smiling, no doubt happy that she had found someone to talk to about her secret nerdy pleasure.  And me--well, I had to smile too.  For one because I'd found a kindred spirit, if only for a few seconds.  But more than that, I was smiling because I realized just how much I loved this damned country of mine.  If there are two things of ours that are pervasive in this world, it's our entertainment and our guns, and no amount of cultural or political differences can keep them out.


  1. Matt Lauer???

    How much does a book cost in Chile compared to the US? Don't let our government know that Chile imposes an 18% tax on books. They may want to do the same thing.

  2. I keed, I keed. The Matt Lauer bit came from an old South Park episode.

    But to answer your question, a coworker of mine went to buy a spanish-english dictionary at a local book store. The back of the book (it was printed in the US) said "$9 USD." He ended up having to pay $9,000 Chilean Pesos, which is about $17.50 US. Some of that is probably an ad hoc "American Tax" levied by the proprietor, but such is the price you pay for not speaking the same language.


  3. I know some countries impose an extra fee if you buy a book for your ereader. I think I just read Amazon decided not to do that anymore. Don't they have libraries in Chile? Don't the kids have to do book reports? This is strange.

  4. @Virginia Llorca

    Oh, they have libraries all right, but they seem to be used more for academic studies rather than entertainment. It seems strange to us, but limiting access to books (and indeed to literacy in general) can be an effective way of controlling the populace. And Chile is currently a fairly democratic country, but it didn't always used to be.

    As a side note, though, I will have to eat at least some of my words. On my run this morning I did see a guy reading a book on a park bench, so there's at least one out there. Still not exactly common, though.

  5. I had no idea that books would be considered a luxury! So that must mean that I am rich (at least in their minds). Makes me want to send everyone in Chile a book!

  6. I was in Chile in 1992 and it is still one of my favorite countries I've been in. If you have a chance go to Torres del Paine.

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