Our Reading Lives

How To Be a Reader in a Country Where Reading Isn’t a Habit

This is a guest post from Laura Melgão.  Laura is a 27-year-old woman who still reads—and loves!—YA books. Feminist, sensible, and an introvert by nature, Laura found an escape in books soon after learning how to read. One of Laura’s recently-found aims is to write to others about literature—simply what makes my world go round.

I’ve always been an avid reader. Since I learned how to read, really. My Mum would buy me books and encourage me from day one, and I’ve never put a book down since. I’m 27 years old now, so you can imagine how long ago that was.

Also, as a reader, sometimes I have trouble saying I’m currently reading YA or erotica, or some chick lit title I discovered on Goodreads. If you feel the same way, it’s nice to know I’m not the only one. Along the way, and as we grow older, we just let go of such shames and accept us as we are, not caring about what anyone else thinks. But now try to imagine this situation of feeling embarrassed about what you’re reading in a country where, for many years, reading was meant to educate, not to entertain.

I present to you, Portugal. That’s where I’m from. And I know, everyone knows Portugal due to Cristiano Ronaldo – and that just proves my point. In Portugal, people care more about football than reading. Fifty years ago, the grand majority of people was illiterate. We lived buried deep in a dictatorship that shut us out from the rest of the world. And what better way to keep people ignorant and to not ask questions than not teaching them how to read? Yep.

So you see, the habit of reading isn’t that much ingrained on the Portuguese. Fortunately, things are really improving nowadays, and it’s more and more common to see people in the subway reading. In June, the National Book Fair that takes place in Lisbon sees its number of visitors increasing every year. Only recently we’ve been wakened to a whole new world of literature. Libraries are blossoming with new genres, new world-wide phenomena, books from other languages…And YA is finally becoming a thing in Portugal (Amen!).

It was only when I started reading in English that I realized how many books and new niches are out there that don’t reach the Portuguese publishing houses and libraries. Simply because there’s no audience here to buy those kind of books. Why? Besides the lacking habit of reading, for many years it seemed that only the award-winning Portuguese authors were the ones being read amongst the Portuguese readers.

Yes, we have an elite here, these groups of people who think chick lit, YA, or mainstream titles don’t belong on the bookshelves of true literates. Because for many years, reading was an activity that belonged to the most educated, richest people.

See what I was talking about?

I lost count of how many times I felt embarrassed about disclosing what I’m reading to other Portuguese people. In fact, I keep many titles to myself and never speak of them out loud to many people who ask me what I’m reading. And why, may I ask? Books and publishing are a business like any other, and that ideal we keep in our minds that the true editors just publish the books they feel are the best ones is completely wrong. Just look at Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight. They never got their success because of their literary acclaim. They were huge because the market was hungry for their stories!

So I ask again – why do we feel ashamed of telling someone we’re currently reading erotica, or whatever? Why do we have trouble saying we really don’t care about that award-winning author? Reading isn’t for the educated anymore. It’s time to turn the tables around! And now that things are finally changing around here…the possibilities are endless.