Colombians read (almost) one book a year” say the newspaper headlines, usually around the time of the year when the Book Fair comes to Bogotá.   I found that Colombian.  I sat next to her on Transmilenio.  The book was “La Quinta Montaña” by Paulo Coelho.  She was on page 182 (I was very keen to find out) of about 250, and it being December 23rd and she being an apparently devoted reader, she would probably almost finish the book by the end of the year and therefore complete the annual average.  Literary Colombia can sigh with relief: standards did not drop last year.

library in Bogota, Colombia

Although the average Colombian may not read very much, Bogotá boasts a number of libraries and bookstores and is known as the “Athens of South America.”

Just under a book a year.  On the Transmilenio and on the buses passengers do not read, with the possible exception of text messages.  They might doze, sleep, talk on the phone, play with the phone, and listen to music or to the many visiting salesmen who come hawking pencils, chocolates, nuts or – most frequently – their own personal miseries in exchange for a few pesos.  “I don’t want to disturb you, much less make you feel uncomfortable,“ they say in an opening speech that they and their audience know by heart, “but… (insert here story about drug abuse, unemployment, loss of home, mortal illness, often a combination of all).”  Passengers might do many things while they’re on the bus or Transmilenio, but mostly they do nothing.  They wait patiently, passively, resignedly, until they reach their destination.  And what happens when they reach their destination?  A yellow- or green-uniformed girl will hand them a free newspaper and a smile.  “Publimetro, have a nice day,” says the girl in green. “ADN, have a nice day,” says the girl in yellow.  What a wonderful idea!  Something to read, just what they wanted after spending half an hour, an hour or an hour and a half sat in a bus doing anything – sleeping, snoring, staring, vegetating – BUT read.

I notice that most ex-passengers tend to take the proffered paper, mainly, or rather only, because it’s free but I don’t notice many ex-passengers breaking a habit of a lifetime and actually reading it…  No doubt the marketing people behind Publimetro and AND will claim to would-be advertisers that they have “three readers per paper,” this achieving an incredible “impact” of more than a million people a day.  But exactly when do these “readers” read? “A qué horas?” as they say in Spanish.  If they quite obviously fail to take the opportunity to read when they have plenty of time – during their long, boring, empty journeys to work – how or when are they going to read when they’re actually at work, and presumably don’t have the time to read and/or an indulgent boss who will let them?  (And assuming people did read on the Transmilenio or the buses, surely it would be worth the logistical cost and effort to give people the free papers before they start their journey, thus giving them the chance of a little reading time?).

One of the most surprising merchandise sold on the buses last year, amongst the goods and sentiments of questionable legality and sincerity, was precisely books. Cheap, legitimately printed books, according to their sales pitch. I say “sold,” because I at least bought one.  But they broke the first law of bus marketing or indeed any marketing: offer your target something they might need or want, or be possibly cajoled into wanting or desiring, in this case chocolates for the peckish; coloured pencils for the parents; and stories of woe for the naturally sympathetic.  But how many dozing, apathetic passenger on a buses might need or want a book?  And by “book” I mean 200 pages plus, without any pictures.  Alright, Many pictures.  They might have had more luck selling hearing aids or reading classes in nursery schools; or conversely acne cream or contraceptive pills in an old age people’s home.

Or perhaps they didn’t already know what I already knew: Colombians read only one book (almost) a year, that book this year was “La Quinta Montaña” by Paulo Coelho, and that lady on the Transmilenio had already bought it and read it (almost).