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Viva las Libraries! Viva las Books!

Mexico City Subway Starts Lending Books

1 hour, 30 minutes ago

By MORGAN LEE, Associated Press Writer

MEXICO CITY - Mexico City's subway began lending books to riders Friday in a new program aimed at reducing crime and fostering a more hospitable atmosphere for millions of commuters.

The city plans to distribute 7 million paperbacks in the next two years, trusting commuters to return the books but not making it a requirement. Early Friday, volunteers at one busy subway station handed out 150 books in just a few minutes.

"We are convinced that when people read, people change," said Javier Gonzalez Garza, the director of the Metro.

The idea emerged from discussions with New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (news - web sites)'s consulting firm on ways to cut the sky-high crime rate in Mexico's capital, a city of some 8.5 million people.

A program volunteer said there was high rider demand.

"When we take them out, they just fly" out of our hands, said Alejandro Camarena.

Before rush hour was over, 45 of the 150 books had been returned. Commuter Marta Gaona got as far as page 16 on her commute to work, then asked if she could keep her book to read on her lunch hour. She planned to return it on her way home.

"I don't know if everyone will return them," she said. "I think some will."

But some doubt the program's value as an anti-crime tool.

"Now we'll have an equal number of delinquents, but well-educated," said Omar Raul Martinez, the director of a book and magazine publishing firm.

Mexico City isn't the first major city to try cultivating a literary underground. Tokyo has dozens of tiny paperback borrowing libraries at subway stations, usually located outside of turnstiles for commuters. Japanese say the borrowing libraries foster a sense of community.

Mexico City's subway has adopted other measures to improve the commute, including installing art exhibits in stations and requiring men and women to ride separate cars at rush hour to prevent sexual harassment.

Robbery and pickpocketing remain common on the vast Metro system, which carries 4.7 million people a day across the capital for less than 20 U.S. cents a ride.

Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a potential presidential candidate in 2006, also may have voters in mind as the Metro lends books to the city's residents.

The subway program comes amid a national push to increase literacy, with President Vicente Fox (news - web sites) planning an expansion of the national library system and increased spending on textbooks.

Mexico has an official literacy rate above 90 percent, but many people do not read on a daily basis, in part because many are too poor to buy books.

Organizers of the book project hope to create 500,000 new readers. A private company that controls the subway's advertising concession will pay for most of the books.

The city has commissioned 250,000 copies of one book containing accounts of Mexico City life in prose, poetry and works of theater with passages short enough to read during a subway ride.

The opening piece by Carlos Monsivais, one of Mexico's most prominent writers, recounts the aftermath of the devastating 1985 earthquake, when people rallied to organize rescue crews and help victims.

"It could have some effect if it convinces people that without organization, without solidarity you cannot confront the immense urban and ecological catastrophe that is Mexico City," Monsivais said.

Monsivais, a regular Metro rider who accepted a "symbolic" payment of $300 for use of his work, said he had faith the books will be put to good use.

"Those that don't (return them) will lend them to other people," he said

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