Buying Books in Mexico

(photo credit: Roland Soong)

The business of the critic, Alatorre maintained, "is the ebb and flow that exists between literary pleasure and the literary experience."  In a recent book, (En lisant, en écrivant, 1981), Julien Gracq says somewhat the same thing, though more breezily:

I ask the literary critic to tell me why reading this book gives me a pleasure that another book cannot give me ... A book that pleases me is like a woman whose charms seduce into an affair with her: I couldn't care less about her family, her birthplace, her class, her relations, her education, her childhood, her friends ... What a travesty and what an imposture the métier of the critic is!  Being an expert in love-objects!  ... The truth is that there is no point in concerning ourselves with literature unless it represents to us a repertory of femmes fatales and creatures of perdition.

The idea of literature that Gracq and Alatorre share casts an ambiguous light, at once sparking and somber, on the expression "literary pleasure": it turns into passion.

Octavio Paz:  One Earth, Four or Five Worlds: Reflections on Contemporary History

There are many reasons for books to be important.  In the history of Latin America, writing was important for different reasons over time.  In the colonial period, the administration of these far-flung colonies would be impossible without the class of letrados providing the communication and documentation of the empire.  After the overthrow of the European empires, the new nations explored and forged their identities through proposing, debating and evolving various viewpoints through the spoken and written words.  Whereas literacy and therefore communicative power was once firmly in the hands of the elite, the twentieth century saw the rapid emergence of a mass reading public majority.  Today, the publishing industry in Latin America is a highly segmented mass market. 

We will cite some data from the TGI Mexico study.  This is a study based upon interviewing 11,040 persons between 12 and 64 years old in Mexico conducted by Moctezuma y Asociados during 1999-2000.  According to the TGI Mexico study, 14% of these respondents said that they purchased one or more books during the previous 30 days.  The nature of these books are not specified, so that they can vary from mathematical textbooks to philosophical treatises to romance novels, either for oneself or as presents for others.

In the following table, we show the demographic breakdown of these book buyers.  The column with the heading 'index' represents 100 times the percent of book buyers in that demographic subgroup divided by the total percent of book buyers in the population (namely, 14%).  An index greater than 100 means that there is a higher incidence of book buyers in that subgroup, while an index less than 100 means that there is a lower incidence.  

Demographic Variable/Class

% Book Buyers Index
Socio-economic Level


     Male 12-19
     Male 20-24
     Male 25-34
     Male 35-44
     Male 45-54
     Male 55-64

     Female 12-19
     Female 20-24
     Female 25-34
     Female 35-44
     Female 45-54
     Female 55-64




Number of years of education
     1 to 8 years
     9 to 11 years
     12 or more years



(source:  TGI Mexico, Moctezuma y Asociados)

The clearest correlations of book purchasing are for socio-economic level (implying the ability to make non-essential spending on books) and educational level (implying the learned skill to read and appreciate books).   The reading of books is a signal of membership in the exclusive and privileged class of letrados as distinct from the unlettered mob.  From Rama's book (see reference at the bottom of this page), we read:

The exaltation of writing --- initiated during the colonial period and stubbornly maintained after independence --- created a characteristic situation of diglossia, whereby Latin Americans exhibited a sharp and habitual distinction between two separate kinds of language.  The first of these was suited to public, formal, or official occasions, laden with courtly formulas of peninsular origin, its Baroque mannerisms carried to an unparalleled extreme.  This sort of language served for civic ceremonies, religious liturgy, and the careful protocol of exchanges between members of the lettered city.  Above all, it served for writing, and it particularly the only language to find its way into the written record.  The other half of Latin American diglossia was the informal speech of everyday life, the version of Spanish or Portuguese used by the poor and unpretentious with each other on all occasions and employed by almost everyone in private.  This popular language appears quite rarely in writing, most often when some irate letrado wrote to inveigh against its clumsiness, its jabbering informally, and its unfettered innovation (equated with ignorance, corruption and barbarism).  In the dichotomous division of colonial society, this vernacular corresponded to the so-called plebe, a word referring in an undifferentiated way to the mass of common people, whether Mexico City beggars, Argentine gauchos, or the caboclo peasants of the Brazilian backlands. (p.31)

Still, one has to make a distinction between reading books and other signs of elite membership (such as wearing uncomfortable European clothing utterly unsuitable for tropical climate).  After all, books can provide much useful information and the pleasure provided by reading text is arguably more than just false consciousness.

(photo credit: Roland Soong)

Books are not the only form of reading material, as there are also billboards, wall posters, public notices, pamphlets, flyers, newspapers, magazines, computer documents and worldwide web pages.  Reading is a learned skill and an acquired habit.  It would be reasonable to expect that book readers to be more likely to peruse other types of reading materials as well.  As the following table shows, readers of non-book materials are more likely to buy books, especially in the case of internet users.  It is small wonder that the earliest successful business-to-consumer websites are the booksellers.

Reading activity

% Bought books in past 30 days Index
Readers of weekday newspapers 16% 116
Readers of Sunday newspapers 17% 118
Readers of weekly magazines 17% 121
Readers of fortnightly magazines 17% 122
Readers of monthly magazines 20% 143
Internet users 27% 191
Internet news readers 32% 231

(source:  TGI Mexico, Moctezuma y Asociados)



(posted by Roland Soong on 7/28/00)

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