World Literature as State Project and Everyday Practice

October 7 marked the official publication date of Mexican Literature as World Literature, my most recent edited collection. The very next day, while browsing the shelves of the Cineteca Nacional bookstore in Mexico City, I serendipitously found a facsimile edition of Lecturas clásicas para niños, a 1924 anthology of literature for use in schools. I was not aware of this edition, I have the digital copy one can freely download in the website of Mexico’s National Commission of Textbooks, along with some of the Clásicos Verdes, a concurrent project of mass printing of Western literary classics, a utopian project considering the very high levels of illiteracy at the time. Finding a copy of one of the works discussed in the essay I wrote for the book felt like a good omen, another small piece of evidence supporting the book’s desire to think world literature not as a matter of the circulation of works in hegemonic cultural markets of the neoliberal era.

Rather this kind of collection embodies the aspiration of using what was called at the time “universal literature” as a pedagogical tool to bring Mexico’s post-revolutionary citizenry to experience a sense of modernity and worldliness, under the idea that the cultures of the world, and not just the cultures of the nation, are a right and patrimony of all.

Lecturas clásicas para niños is a two-volume anthology of a wide range of works, including tales from European and Asian antiquities, European medieval and early modern fables, and, of course, stories from Pre-Columbian, Colonial and Post-Independence Mexico. In his introduction, Bernardo J. Gastélum, the under-secretary of education under Vasconcelos and a founding figure of Mexico’s university system, argued that this book was needed because most existing anthologies came from countries in which you “speak in one way and write in another” presumably, France and the United States. In contrast, the phonological character of Spanish makes the acquisition of literacy faster, which in turn makes it more viable, according to Gastélum, to lead children to actual literary texts at a young age.

The idealistic character of this project did not reflect the fact that the mass educational campaigns of Mexico were just beginning, or that it would take years for this kind of curriculum to become institutionalized. What interests me about this material is not so much whether it was realistic or not, but rather the way in which it embodied an understanding of the centrality of a worldly canon of texts in the development of mass print culture during the 20th century. As I explore in my essay, this spirit has a precursor in the work of publishers like Cvltvra, with its many translations of works, and has its most famous manifestation in Editorial Porrúa’s Sepan Cuantos collection, which boasts 750 titles and continues to be an essential and cheap source of literary classics for students and readers.

This article has now generated in me an interest in the history of these anthologies and collections, and I may venture into writing more about it. Speaking of omens, the great used bookstore La Murciélaga posted in their Twitter feed the book photos above, just as I was packing to leave for Mexico City. I jumped on it without a good sense of what it was. It turns out it is an anthology of texts in a variety of genres from the whole of Asia, from the Middle East to the Pacific. The book is uncut, and it will take me some emotional effort to crack open the pages, and it lacks a publication date. But in doing some research I have learned that the book dates to the 1940s, likely 1944 or 1945.

Just reading about it I can see there is a treasure trove of history tied to this project. It was published by Ediciones Pavlov, an imprint of Editorial Navarro, a major book enterprise of the mid-20th century. It began as “Ediciones Frente Cultural,” which, as someone mentioned to me on Twitter, was a prominent communist press in the 1930s. And, according to this short essay about it, it published everything from the works of Lenin and Stalin to major works of historiography, including Orozco Berra’s Historia antigua. Navarro had a substantive footprint for decades, and was a representative of a book culture that has believed in the promise of popular reading even if our educational system, and the success of television and the internet in capturing the imagination of Mexicans, often conflict with this dream.

My own life as a reader has debts with this culture. The first two books I read, around age 14, were Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray and Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which I found in mass-printed hardcovers in an aunt’s house (a weird discovery because she was not a reader herself). I was lucky to have a literature teacher, Carmen Sánchez Moguel, who fiercelessly led groups of unruly teenagers through the ambitious national curriculum of universal and Mexican literature, much of which was shaped by the intersection of free textbooks printed by the government and the availability of classics in Porrúa.

In my free time and with the little money I had, I was able to read literary classics thanks to their distribution in newstands, where one could find cheap hardcovers with everything from Shakespeare and Lope de Vega to a series consecrated to Nobel Prize winners to novelists like García Márquez or Milan Kundera. I would buy remainders of mass printings of government editions of both Mexican and world literature outside Gandhi. I have a distinct memory of reading the Porrúa editions The Odyssey, The Illiad and The Aeneid in my school commute, which entailed a combination of buses and the subway, and a travel time of at least two hours each day.

I have been happy to see these efforts continue today. Under a reinvention of Mexico’s major governments presses, writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II has decided reorient government book policy to wage aggressively on mass distribution of books. Projects include 21 para el 21, a selection of Mexican literary works printed in millions of copies currently distributed for free across the national bookstore network, or Vientos del pueblo, small illustrated printings of short stories and essays or excerpts of major works of Latin American and world writers, priced at around sixty dollar cents each.

Some of my friends in the Mexican cultural world object to this in many ways: that giving books for free devalues the economic activity around the book industry, that printing cheap editions is unbecoming for a publisher defined historically by editing high-level work in the humanities and social sciences, or that the money spent in them hollows out the historical mission of Fondo de Cultura. I certainly wish that Taibo had not withdrawn so much from specialized publishing. But as someone without access to books at home, who became an avid reader, i am absolutely certain that these books may foster people like my younger self to discover books, and I loved seeing in the Zocalo book fair this weekend young people raiding the Vientos del Pueblo shelf. The Mexican educational system has an enormous historical debt in providing a reading education to match its mass publication projects. But the continued presence of the utopian idea of mass popular reading fills my heart with joy.

For me, Mexican Literature as World Literature is the later iteration of the questions I have always had regarding those reading experiences. I am very lucky to have in this project some of the best literary critics in the field, engaging writers like Sor Juana, Octavio Paz, Juan Rulfo or Carlos Fuentes, the cosmopolitan cultures that traverse Mexico from the colony to the present, and many other topics. I am very proud of this book, and I hope it finds readers across different fields.

%d bloggers like this: