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The Electronic Menace

In Defense of Paper Books

by ANDRE VLTCHEK

Do not trust them when they repeatedly tell you that the era of paper books is ending, that they would soon become as obsolete as vinyl records or coal-fired train engines. Books, printed on paper and sold in bookstores, have been our best friends for many centuries. They have educated billions of people worldwide, they have strengthened resistance, and have made people dream about better political and economic systems. There would have been no revolution without them, no intellectual development, and no deep understanding of the world.

Fascist dictators – from German Nazis to Indonesian cronies who took power after the Western-sponsored coup on 1965 – were known to burn books, publicly and shamelessly. To them the books stank of progress, of the aim for social justice, and of the ‘nightmare’, the specter, of egalitarian societies.

Of course, not all books have been written and published for the purpose of educating the masses, calling for revolution or exposing inequalities. There are the memoirs of people like Henry Kissinger as well as countless volumes of the economic theories of Milton Friedman, Friedrich von Hayek and their ilk calling for the implementation of market fundamentalism and its global dictatorship. There are even books written by such people like mass murderers as Adolf Hitler. But this generalized formula is probably indisputable: more books, more knowledge, more desire for progress and therefore better societies.

Now we are being told that the era of paper books is over, that in a few decades we should not even hope to have books as we have known them which help to shape our lives. We are being warned to get ready for life without books.

* * *

I was sitting in one of Bangkok’s cafes, staring at the slow flow of Chao Phraya River, watching its fascinating old barges and long-tail boats. I had been typing a new chapter of my 1,000 page long political novel “Winter Journey” which  brings together stories of the countless slaughters and genocides performed by the ‘Western Democracies’ after WWII, the acts, according to my rough calculations, have taken approximately 45 million human lives worldwide, and probably many more.

At one point, my eyes fell on a copy of the International Herald Tribune and on the article with the title “The bookstore’s battle for survival”, written by Julie Bossman.

I put my computer aside and began reading. Not only did it spoil my day, but it led to incredible outburst of anger of which this commentary is the result.

It was not just what I read that shocked me, but also the tone of the piece. It was projecting an Orwellian inevitability, the total lack of options being given to the people of the world on this issue. Obviously, whether traditionally printed books would survive much longer is not just a battle between corporations such as Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. We are reminded, covertly but powerfully, that it is big business that dictates how we should live, what we should consume and how we should think.

Living far away from Western epicenters of corporate terror, I often forget how undemocratic Europe and North America has really become and how submissive, how obedient is nowadays their population. Encounters with the logic like the one described in the article bring me face to face with reality.

Have we gone mad? Are we going to see and watch some private companies dismantling the intellectual fabric that has for centuries helped our societies to move forward? Are we going to entrust out intellectual future to the corporate minds of Amazon or Barnes & Noble, to allow them to decide what we read and how?

* * *

I actually left the Empire in 1996. I used to live on the Upper West Side in New York. All around me the old services and eateries were collapsing, giving way to chain outlets like Starbucks and GAP. The last blow came when the grand old Shakespeare & Company had to close down, giving way to yet another Barnes & Noble. I lost my interest in chain culture. I threw my computer and clothes in the trunk of my car and moved permanently to Merida, Yucatan, Mexico, and from there later on to Santiago de Chile.

And now it appears that Barnes & Noble that sharked everything around is now itself being eaten by tremendous barracuda with the limitless appetite.

Julie Bossman writes in her piece from Palo Alto

“…Barnes & Noble, the giant that had helped put so many independent booksellers out of business, now finds itself locked in the fight of its life. What its engineers dreamed up was the Nook, a relative latecomer among e-readers that has nonetheless become the great e-hope of Barnes & Noble and, in fact, of many in the book business.” 

Seriously? So the chain book-store giant that made me leave my home is now going one enormous and horrid step further – it’s going electronic!

Sure, there is always a justification. Julie Bossman continues:

“…Lurking behind all of this is Amazon, the dominant force in books online and the company that sets teeth on edge in publishing. From their perches in New York, many publishing executives, editors and publicists view Amazon as the enemy – an adversary that, if unchecked, could threaten their industry and their livelihoods.”

What follows are the business analyses, the stock prices, the business appetites and trends. There are no moral, philosophical or educational issues addressed in the article. It’s as if the people in the US and Europe have been fully surrendered to the markets, and as if the people have no other choice but to sit and wait while the corporate giants decide how they should be given their information.

I really don’t want to live in such a world and I don’t, but that’s not the point. What matters is that the West is eventually going to export its business concepts all over the world, as it always does. If the bookstores close down in London, Paris and New York, the chances are that the new ‘trend’ will be pushed down the throats of the people in Kuala Lumpur, Johannesburg, Buenos Aires and elsewhere. And readers will have little choice in what they hold. And that matters to me.

What appears to be truly at stake here is definitely much more than the pathetic bottom lines of some corporate brethren. The chase for profits could deeply, irreversibly and negatively affect one of the most important and noble of human activities: the entire culture of reading and of learning. How could such principal decisions be left to a bunch of businessmen in their corporate institutions?

In many cultures, and particularly in some of the most educated ones, such as Cuba, Venezuela and China, books are not only ‘protected’, the publishing is actually subsidized by the state. And subsidized it should be. Like education and health, book publishing and distribution should be a basic public service. Books can’t be and should not be only for profit.

Public parks and sidewalks are also ‘unprofitable’. Of course in some countries, such as Indonesia, where Jakarta and other cities have implemented a virtually absolute western market-regime, such ‘unnecessary’ entities have almost completely disappeared. But is this what we want: the world without parks and forests, without sidewalks and public places, without books? Have we totally surrendered ourselves to corporate terror?

You see – if we allow business to take over everything, there would be soon nothing worth living for. We would be reduced to being pre-programmed robotic consumers, locked in efficient, air-conditioned and ultimately sterile malls, watching never-ending soap operas on television, eating and drinking pre-digested factory produced meals made from floor scraps, reading computer generated ‘novels’ and comic strips, watching movies with computer-generated plots. We would never be without our music storing, camera toting ‘smart phones’, headphones permanently jammed in our ears, listening to the same copyright protected, mass-produced synthesized voices and rhythms!

Yet such a society, attempting to change the global system to its ends, is self-defeating in that it is failing to understand, to deplore and to prevent atrocities it is committing, atrocities which are reducing the number of potential consumers.

I can offer a good example from my ‘field of expertise’. I am making a documentary film on the massacres in Congo committed by our proxies. So far, somewhere between six and ten million people have died so we can stick the rare earth coltan (columbite-tantalite) in our mobile phones, and so we could also have access to uranium. Our business interests murdered those people, although the killing itself has been done predominantly by two vicious (but friendly to the West) African dictatorships.

In spite of the number of articles and books published about this, how many people in Europe or in the United States know about this? Now imagine that there were be no books by Naomi Klein or John Pilger, or by others like them. It would be back to the days of Joseph Conrad, back to the free reign of unchecked colonialism.

Maybe that’s the plan!

How dandy: we would all be reading the same books, approved by the regime: on the screens of Nooks and iPads and similar gadgets. And of course there would be no dissident literature, no samizdat, as samizdat would be brutally crushed; not by the state but by copyright laws and electronic surveillance.

This would take some time. We would first be told that we would get a greater choice this way. But then, after they put all bookstores out of commission, there would be suddenly no choice, just pre-selected, mainstream, brain-numbing, ‘one style lobotomizes all’ pop.

Would you like to live in the world where you have to give away your complete personal information just in order to ‘download’ books by Hemingway or Sartre?

And once the electronic publishing companies possess all electronic rights for all books and once there is no more paper book publishing – and you know that once electronic publishers get their hands on the rights, they will copyright everything and then ensure that there are no conventional publishing houses left – they will be able to decide what you are able, and should, read!

Diversity? For a sneak preview, consider iTunes. Log on and try to order Soviet Red Army Choir tracks or the tunes from some off beat but great tango club in Buenos Aires, try to stock up on brilliant bands from the Congo or Zanzibar, or Chinese or Indian classical music. You can’t? So you verge on being a criminal as you are forced to download illegal programs just to convert the music that you bought earlier, so it could actually play on your iPhone. But even then you can’t use it as your own ring tone.

The music industry, hand in hand with electronic manufacturers, has turned hundreds of millions of those in Europe and North America who would be probably listening to ‘rebellious’, ‘revolutionary’ or ‘opposition’ music to pop music junkies. They actually managed to do the same to people in Southeast Asia. Do you really and honestly want the same to happen with books?

Do you think, if the companies have their say, you would be able to read for long those rebellious books by Noam Chomsky, or by Michael Parenti, or even by me? Do you think that once I finish my 1.000 novel encouraging resistance against the market fundamentalist and Western neo-colonialist regime now controlling the world, it would be sold in Nook compatible format? Think twice!

Once Barnes & Noble, Amazon or whoever ‘wins’, decide what should be published and read, the book publishing industry would end up just like our great Western propaganda-regurgitating mass media. It would be total monopolistic in manufacturing the vision of the world. As the propaganda machine already controls the media, film production and distribution, as well as music, books are the last loopholes, the only real opportunity to learn the truth.

I will never forget a conversation I had some ten years ago in New Delhi with Sudhanva Deshpande, the publisher of the “Left Word”. Sudhanva with his mischievous smile stood next to the printing press in one of the slums and proudly explained: “We make our books very durable. We actually make them so durable that the people could copy them at least ten times on a copier machine, page by page.” I still consider this the greatest statement I ever heard from any publisher.

I keep thinking about gigantic bookstores, fully subsidized, in all major Chinese cities; I have found much more political diversity on the shelves there than in a Barnes & Noble shop which I recently visited in a middle class Chicago suburb.

I also think about the bookstores in Venezuela, where all great works of poetry and classical literature are sold for just a few cents. Every year the government distributes millions of books for free to all corners of the country. It doesn’t distribute propaganda; it distributes classics such as Cervantes’ Don Quixote. And all people can read them, not just those with an iPad or Kindle.

What also comes to mind are the enormous publishing houses in the former Soviet Union, those that translated and distributed books worldwide for free, or for a nominal sum of money; they were published in all the languages, including some minor ones in terms of the number of native speakers, in Africa and Asia. These books helped African and Asian to gain independence from Western colonial powers. They also helped colonized nations rediscover their own previously suppressed cultures.

A book is knowledge and knowledge is power. Books are one of the greatest cultural heritages. Be they printed in the corner of an oil-stained workshop in a poor country, or by the state-subsidized publishing house of an anti-imperialist nation, books could be a weapon of the oppressed who gained the knowledge and ideas contained therein.

Books are some of the mightiest weapons in revolutionary struggles and in resistance. To abandon them, to let them be captured would mean that everything is lost. It would be an acceptance that market fundamentalism and imperialism should be now allowed to possess, digitize and manipulate all knowledge, all verbalized dreams and the hopes that our humanity has created throughout the centuries. By no means should this be allowed to happen!

ANDRE VLTCHEK  is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He lives and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website