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Take the subway, get a free book

Mexico City subway passengers snatched up free books Friday, the first day of a program aimed at turning the capital's vast Metro into an underground library.

The city started handing out 250,000 books during the morning rush hour, when commuters relaxed and read a little on a ride that can require some jockeying for space and a sharp eye for pickpockets.

The first sprinkling of paperbacks is part of a plan to distribute 7-million books in the next two years, while trusting subway riders to return them.

"When we take them out, they just fly" out of our hands, said Alejandro Camarena, one of several volunteer book distributors fighting to keep up with demand.

Camarena's post handed out 150 books in just a few minutes early Friday morning. Before rush hour was over, 45 books had been returned. Later, the program was officially launched at a subway station named for Emiliano Zapata, a hero of Mexico's 1910-1917 Revolution.

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."

The idea emerged from discussions with Leoluca Orlando, former mayor of Palermo, Italy, and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's consulting firm on ways to cut crime in Mexico's capital, a city of 8.5-million people.

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

Some have doubts about the program's value as an anticrime 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 outside of turnstiles. Japanese commuters say the 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 during 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 cents a ride.

Authorities are considering other anticrime measures, but Gonzalez said the Metro decided to address the issue from "the cultural side."

The administration of Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a potential presidential candidate in 2006, also might have voters in mind as it lends books to the city's poorer residents, who are more likely to use the Metro than wealthier Mexicans.

The subway program comes amid a national push to increase literacy. President Vicente Fox is planning an expansion of the national library system and increased spending on textbooks.

Mexico has a 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 say they hope to create 500,000 new readers. A private company that has the subway's advertising concession will pay for most of the books.

The first edition for the Metro contained 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 a devastating earthquake in 1985, when people rallied to organize rescue crews and help victims.

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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