by Marcela Valente
A novel programme aimed at fomenting a reading habit among low-income sectors was launched in Argentina: the "Books and Houses" campaign will deliver a bookshelf complete with 18 volumes to each affordable housing unit assigned to families this year through government assistance plans.
The books were carefully selected by a team of experts in education and literature, coordinated by officials at the Secretariat of Culture. More than 70 percent of the works were specially published for the programme, which plans to distribute a total of 80,000 bookshelves to 800 districts and towns around the country.
"They're beautiful books," Sandra Ruiz, who lives in Añatuya, a town in the northwestern province of Santiago del Estero, told IPS. "There's poetry, fables, stories and practical manuals."
The programme began by delivering the bookshelves to 70 homes in Añatuya, where 27 percent of the 20,000 local residents have either no formal schooling or did not complete primary school.
The next area to be targeted by the programme is the Buenos Aires suburb of San Isidro, where affluent neighbourhoods coexist alongside six slums that are being upgraded with the construction of new low-cost housing.
"We have the houses, but we don't have the books yet," a woman named Chira told IPS in San Isidro.
Ruiz, a teacher in Añatuya and mother of five children between the ages of eight and 16, moved into a new two-bedroom house from the Federal Planning Ministry. She and her husband will begin to pay it off in affordable instalments six months from now. "My daughter has already taken one of the books to school, she's so proud," she said.
"We already had a few books, so this expands our library. But for many people in the neighbourhood, this is the first time that they have a book in their house," added Ruiz.
The idea emerged as an initiative of Argentina's Culture Secretary José Nun. "When they start school, children from better-off families are at an enormous advantage over kids who come from needy homes, because they have already had contact with books," said the official.
"We hope the occupants of the new housing units will consult and read their new books, and that they will also try to continue to fill up the bookshelves. That is why the shelves have empty spaces, so their owners can fill them with books of their own choice," Nun said this month at the project's launch.
The plan is to distribute 1.4 million books, to reach around half a million people, with the aim of fighting the low reading level noted in a government study last year.
The report pointed out that although reading levels increased 19 percent between 2004 and 2006, nearly 44 percent of those surveyed said they had not read a single book over the past year, in many cases citing lack of access as the reason.
While the central goal of the new programme is to make books available to children in order to help them acquire a reading habit, the volumes that were chosen are for the entire family.
They include history books, dictionaries, literature for adults and children, and practical manuals on different subjects.
The children's literature texts include classics, stories and novels by local authors, and contemporary works. In addition, there is a book of short stories and poems, and a new edition of Oscar Wilde's "The Happy Prince" illustrated by Argentine artists.
For adults, there are works by Argentine authors like Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar and Osvaldo Soriano, classics by U.S. writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain, and short stories by Uruguayan writer Horacio Quiroga.
The collection also includes a book of poetry by 17 Argentine authors, such as Alfonsina Storni and Juan Gelman, and another containing lyrics of rock, pop, folk and tango songs.
Also provided are a pocket encyclopaedic dictionary with maps and illustrations, and a basic Spanish language dictionary accompanied by a guide explaining how to use it. In addition, there is a copy of the constitution and a text on national history from 1810 to 2000.
At the request of President Néstor Kirchner, who has taken a proactive stance on human rights issues during his administration, the bookshelves include a special version of "Nunca Más" (Never Again), the 1984 report by the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons.
The report contains testimony by survivors, witnesses and participants about the gross human rights violations committed during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.
Another novel aspect are the manuals. One, on "Legal First Aid", is the only one of its kind published in Argentina. It was drawn up by a team of 20 experts, many of whom belong to the non-governmental organisation Centre of Implementation of Public Policies for Equality and Growth.
The book lists the economic, social and cultural rights of people and families, and provides information on access to justice, alternative conflict resolution methods, and public offices to turn to for legal aid.
Another manual, drawn up with the participation of the National Council for Women, targets adolescent and adult women. Laid out in a format of basic questions and answers, it addresses concerns about sexual and reproductive health, rights, domestic violence and labour.
Also included is a book containing guidelines on child nutrition, which underscores the benefits of nursing, the importance of making sure that children wash their hands before eating, and how to provide a child with a healthy, balanced diet in the first years of life.
Other volumes are a practical guide on looking for work, becoming self-employed, or setting up a microenterprise or small company; a first aid manual; and a manual on household work and management, with tips and practical advice on how to use the public services and how to make basic household repairs.