When was the last time someone read you a story?

Imagine: you’re at work, sitting at your computer typing away, or trying to interpret a bunch of numbers on some spreadsheet, or stacking boxes, or unpacking this and that, or doing any boring no-brain menial task that causes you to space out and dream of sandy beaches and cold beer. Happens to me several times a day. The radio helps, so does the iPod but what if you could enlist a friend to sit and read to you? Whatever you want them to read, they will read. Novels, short stories, local news, national news, political commentary, sports updates, poems, Mad Libs…Well, this is the way is used to be in the cigar factories of old.

See that guy sitting up high on that platform? He’s not the lifeguard, he’s called el lector or the reader. Cigar workers used to hire a reader to sit on that raised platform (called a tribuna) and read whatever they requested. Novels were chosen by popular vote and el lector regularly translated news from the local papers. These were educated men. Men who could read in Spanish, English and sometimes Italian as well as other languages. He had to have a booming voice, and in some cases, used a unique voice for each of the characters in the novels he would read.

The lector wasn’t always a man. It was rare, but there were female readers. This painting by Ferdie Pacheco is one interpretation of a female reader at work. I urge you to check out Ferdie’s site. It is filled with amazing paintings, many related to the scenes and culture of Tampa, Florida, the world of The Cigar Maker.

Many cigar workers were illiterate, but not ignorant, and the readings of the factory lector helped to shape their opinions on politics, world events, sports and most of all: labor and factory life. The cause of Cuba Libre and the fight for Cuban independence meant many cigar workers favored populist, revolutionary, pro-worker literature. Books like Les Miserables were favorites.

Some readers wrote their own populist literature which they read to the friendly hoards, urging the workers to fight for workplace rights, better treatment, fringe benefits – these rabble rousers infuriated management and were labeled as radical agitators. But what could the managers do? Outlawing the factory reader meant the cigar workers would go on strike and not return until the lector was again seated at the tribuna.

The readers caused, as you can imagine, a world of conflict in the cigar factories. This conflict and the world of the cigar workers is explored in great detail in The Cigar Maker.

Are the readers still around? The rise of the radio put most of them out of business but a few of them are still around. This one almost looks like he’s calling BINGO numbers…

The vocation has been classified by NPR as a job of yesteryear. An obsolete occupation. But their purpose lives on! The lector was replaced by the radio and now CDs, iPods, personalized Internet music sites like Pandora and the occassional visit to youtube serve as some of our many (and necessary!) daily diversions. In a technological world of rapid innovation, where Sony Walkmans and tape decks have all but disappeared and vinyl records are nostalgic relics, I look at my iPod and wonder how long it will be around. It’s a 2 GB Nano, already obsolete by Apple standards. When it reaches the end of its life and eventually falls apart, I wonder what I’ll move to next? Would be boss allow me to hire a talented voice-actor to sit and read my favorite stories?

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5 Responses to When was the last time someone read you a story?

  1. Yale R Jaffe says:

    Mark, this is fascinating to me. I’ve choked on a few stoogies during the years, and I have great memories of stuff happening while smoking some earth. Some of them are faily secrets revealed, or friends revealing additions to their families, or celebrating winning a trifiecta at the racetrack, and on and on. The readers add to the mystic of Cigars, and I can’t wait to read your book.

  2. mmcginty says:

    Yale – the book is available from Amazon for whenever you’re ready to check it out…I’m going to be posting articles like these about the cigar industry on a regular basis so stay tuned!

  3. Thank you for this. I had no idea that factory workers like these cigar workers hired people to read to them. When I drive long distances, I listen to books on CDs and a drive of several hours feels much shorter.

    When radio came along with opinionated talk radio and endless music (not that music is bad), workers like the ones you mention lost something. If I spent each workday at a mundane, repetitive job, I’d rather be listening to a dramatic reading of a good novel like I do on those long drives. I imagine the work week would fly by and think of all the great literature I’d get paid to listen to. Heck, I might not even want to go home and tip the reader extra to keep going when the story was reaching a climax in the plot.

  4. mmcginty says:

    The cigar workers then took these stories home and updated their families. An unknown cigar worker once said, “The readings were the only education we had.”

  5. L.C. Evans says:

    Fascinating! I wonder if it was hard to get the workers to agree on what they wanted to hear. I imagine the newspapers were always popular.

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