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  • El Lector: A History of the Cigar Factory Reader
  • Sara Beth Keough
El Lector: A History of the Cigar Factory Reader. Araceli Tinajero. Translated by Judith E Grasberg. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010. xii and 268 pp., tables, photos, notes, and index. $50.00 Hardcover (ISBN: 978-0-292-72175-3).

Most studies on the practice and benefits of reading aloud are solidly placed in the literature on early childhood education. But is there ever a point in a person's life when they become too old to be read to? Araceli Tinajero would say no. In her compelling book on the history of the cigar factory reader, Tinajero explores the development, the diffusion, and the importance of reading aloud in cigar factories in Cuba, Spain, [End Page 213] Mexico, Puerto Rico, the United States, and the Dominican Republic. Here, the main recipients of reading aloud were not children, but rather adults. The act of reading aloud was not initially instituted from the factory management, but rather emerged from the cigar factory workers themselves. It passed the time, certainly, but it was also a proactive form of adult education that increased global awareness through the reading of newspapers, novels, poetry, and non-fiction by the lector for an audience that, initially, was largely illiterate. El Lector illuminates a fascinating and previously neglected topic, but it does have one disappointing aspect.

The book is divided into three parts. The first traces reading aloud back to its roots in Cuban cigar factories and the diffusion of the profession to Spain. Tinajero firmly establishes the lector as a grassroots profession in Cuba. Those who read aloud were cigar rollers themselves, and for the 30 or so minutes each that they spent reading aloud, their co-workers compensated them for wages lost. Management noticed that productivity either remained the same or increased during the reading, so factory management usually supported the role of the lector. The lector evolved to become a formally recognized position within the factory, where readers from outside the factory auditioned in front of the workers for the position and earned wages on the factories' payroll, rather than relying on compensation from workers. Literature was often chosen democratically by vote or committee of workers, although sometimes the lector introduced a work from their own library. If workers didn't like what was read, however, the reading was put aside and some other work took its place.

In Part Two, the reader is taken to the United States and Puerto Rico, where reading aloud in cigar factories spread in the mid-1800s as a result of Cuban migration during the Ten Years War. Having already established the "norms" of reading aloud in Cuban factories, Tinajero explores the similarities and differences in the profession in Key West, Tampa, and parts of Puerto Rico, such as the unionization of workers and threats to strike over what works were chosen by the committee or how the lector was treated. The author's background in literature is highlighted through her analysis and explication of the literature chosen by factory workers for reading aloud. Tinajero compares what was read in Key West and Tampa to that which was read in Cuba. Cultural and historical connections run deep. For example, Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, a book in which the main character is ostracized from French society, was popular among cigar factory workers in Key West who were exiles themselves from Cuba during the Ten Years War. In this way, the lector became a cultural facilitator.

The book's final part considers the contemporary cigar factory reader. The position still exists in Cuba, and Tinajero includes extensive quotes from current and retired cigar factory readers she interviewed. She also explains why the practice was not prevalent in Mexico.

Throughout the book, Tinajero uses extensive historical and archival research to tell her story. She weaves literary analysis expertly into the book's historical context to give the reader both a detailed account of cigar factory reader history and an elaborate cultural context from which to understand the story. The book's focus moves between a consideration for the topic at the national scale (cigar factory readers...