Mexico City subway ride is a bridge to literacy

If you think riding a subway can be a Kafka-esque experience, try taking Mexico City’s yellow line. At each of 13 stations along the line, you’ll see a large billboard, on which is printed–in Spanish translation, of course–a portion of Frank Kafka’s short story, “The Bridge.” In Spanish, that’s “El Puente.”  If you ride the line from end to end, you’ll be able to read the entire, 343-word story in sequence.

According to The City Fix, the billboards are part of a project aimed at increasing literacy. The innovative effort is a partnership between Mexico’s largest book retailer, Librerias Gandhi, and Mexico City’s transportation authority. The billboards are not the only reading materials in Mexico City’s subway stations, and the campaign is not restricted to the yellow line. Pamphlets containing the complete story are available for all riders. [The City Fix offers an entertaining video that gives the flavor of the Kafka/subway experience.]

To its credit, Mexico City’s transit authority has a long history of acknowledging the literacy needs of its riders: When the first subway line was built several decades ago, the authority identified each station with minimalist logos by Lance Wyman—an attempt to make navigation easier for travelers who couldn’t read. The station icons depicted landmarks in the surrounding area, helping riders decipher their location and their destination.

Today, UNICEF pegs Mexico’s literacy rate at 93 percent, a vast improvement. And now that most of the population has at least basic reading skills, expanded exposure to literature would seem a logical next step. And that’s where Kafka fits in.

The Bridge” is a deceptively simple story: The narrator is the bridge, who describes how “he” got there, how “he” feels, and what happens when a traveler arrives to cross the ravine over which “he” is stretched. You can easily read it in just a few minutes [or in the 13 snippets along the yellow line]. But the story leaves you wondering: Is the bridge an actual person or an imaginary, talking object? Is the author hallucinating, dreaming, or writing symbolically? Is he commenting on human behavior? I’ve never taught a literature class, but I can see how this story would be an excellent vehicle to introduce maturing readers to thinking about interpretation, point of view, symbolism and use of language.

What a great idea. Let’s try it here.