AFTER SANT JORDI: ROSES OUTNUMBER BOOKS

For those reading me outside Catalonia, I need to explain that 23rd April, Saint Jordi’s festivity, is a gigantic civic holiday all over the nation. According to the segment devoted to this celebration on the website of Barcelona’s Town Council, Saint Jordi fuses together the old legend of the dragon-slaying hero (possibly descended from Perseus and his sea monster) and the martyrdom of a knight (doubtful…) under Emperor Diocletian (284 to 305 AD). Both legend and saint are commemorated around the time when roses bloom, and it seems that already in the 15th century Barcelona boasted of a rose fair celebrated at the Catalan Government’s palace. It seems that the tradition by which men (must) give their sweethearts a rose dates back from that time…

The idea of celebrating books on the same date is much more recent. In 1927 Valencian writer Vicent Clavel i Andrés, also a publisher, proposed to the ‘Cambra Oficial del Llibre’ of Barcelona and to the ‘Gremi d’Editors i Llibreters’ that a holiday was established for the promotion of books in Catalonia. The original date chosen, 29 October, was changed in 1929, when the booksellers mounted the first street book market on 23rd April. This also happens to be the date when both Cervantes and Shakespeare died, in 1616, which came in handy for UNESCO to declare in 1995 23rd April ‘World Book Day’. Not that you hear much about this internationally.

This year’s Saint Jordi has been hailed as one of the most successful ones in recent memory, meaning during the current economic crisis. At least 250 writers (possibly 50 more) signed books; major figures like Ken Follett kept fans queuing for more than 2 hours, many of them failing even so to get his autograph… La Rambla was so packed, that Major Trias suggested moving the main bookstall area, once and for all, elsewhere for fear of accidents… The best-selling writers were María Dueñas (in Spanish) and Xavier Bosch (in Catalan). A group of medicine students and a group of Roma street sellers almost came to blows towards the end of the day when the students’ decision to lower the prices of the roses they were selling to make some extra money threatened to destroy business…

Now, of all the hullaballoo what caught my attention this time is that 7,000,000 roses were sold (yes, that’s right, as many as Catalonia’s inhabitants) but only 1,500,000 books. Roses, (over-)priced 2 to 7 euros, are obviously cheaper than books, 15-20 euros on average (minus the customary 5% discount). Also, they’re bought on Saint Jordi’s day itself, which is not the case with books (I, for instance, purchased the 6 books I gave as presents 2 weeks before, which means that the total number of books sold around Saint Jordi must be bigger, as not everyone loves the massive street crowds of the holiday). Even so, the picture that emerges is that although Catalan men are romantic enough, Catalans altogether are not that keen on reading… Let’s say that only around 20% got books.

The main local newspaper, La Vanguardia, published on Saint Jordi’s a summary of the general survey by CIS (Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas), published in December 2014. CIS data refer to all Spaniards, but this will do for my purposes. 35% of Spanish people never read: 37,9% of all men, 32,1% of all women. They just don’t like reading (42%), lack time (23%) or prefer other type of entertainment (15%). As I always say, if you like something, you always find time… I prefer the two other, far more honest answers. Among those who do read, 65% of the Spanish population then, many claim to read every day (men 24’40%; women 34’90%), which I very much doubt. If seems Spaniards do not only lie about how often we practice sex… It seems more realistic to claim, as around 16% do, that they read twice a weak (does this also apply to sex??). By the way, the average books-per-year figure for Spanish readers is 8’69… less than one a month… They must be very slow readers…

A common complaint on Saint Jordi’s day is that books may be celebrated but not really culture as many best-selling authors on that day are media celebrities or, at best, middle-brow authors. You can check for yourself at https://www.lavanguardia.com/libros/sant-jordi/20150422/54430780161/firmas-autores-sant-jordi-2015.html. Mariló Montero was there, but also Carme Riera… Anyway, back to CIS: which genres do Spaniards enjoy reading? I’m not sure whether it is surprising that they prefer historical fiction (23’6%), followed by general fiction (17,9%), adventure (7’6%), detective fiction (7’4%). There is a joke somewhere in the fact that 6’1% read romance fiction and 4’4% science fiction, as both figures are very low (3’7% fantasy??? Who did CIS ask, I wonder…). Below 4% you find other genres like biography, essays, short fiction, self-help, poetry, cooking books, travel, drama, comics. I find it very, very hard to believe, all the same, that self-help (1,9%) and poetry (1,7%) have a very similar share of the market… or that only 0’6% read comics and graphic novels. Really, CIS? Have you ever visited FNAC? I got curiouser and curiouser and checked CIS’s website to find out that Spaniards read mainly for entertainment (61’6%) and not really to improve our culture (10’4%) or be better informed (12’8%). We choose books by subject matter or genre (64’5%), and not by author (16’6%)–poor things! Blurbs matter more than covers, by the way.

The other matter that got me curious is what Spaniards do instead of reading. CIS asked how much free time they have on a working day and the answer baffles me, for only 5’8% claim to have no time at all… whereas 44’1% grant they have between 2 to 4 hours of leisure every day. 27’7% of all Spaniards say they have from 8 to 5 spare hours a day. I don’t get it… This, however, makes sense if we consider that daily viewing time of TV in Spain (for 2014) amounts to 238 minutes per person, that is, 4 hours. The historical record was 246 minutes, reached in 2012. Figures are possibly much higher for Spaniards aged 65-75 who do not use the internet (25% claim they do) than for young people aged 16-24 who do surf the net (98,4%). These claim that they have mainly quit watching TV (62%) rather than reading books (27%).Yet, as everyone knows, internet consumption among the young is closely tied to watching TV series online or using downloads. I won’t say a word about the 25% of unemployed general population in Spain or the 50% of unemployed young people under 25. Well, just one question: how do they fill in the hours spent in despair, hoping a job finally materializes?

Five roses for every book sold, this is who we are, the lucky ones with money to spare and limited time in our hands.

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