Thursday, January 27, 2011

A British Invasion We Need

The Brits are talking libraries big time, as protests continue over the looming threats to their public library system. (I love the protest wherein community members checked out all the books! Brilliant.) They have planned for a Save Our Libraries Day of Action on February 5th, and I'm still wondering if anyone in the US is planning to join them. I know we have had many threats to our libraries here in Boston, which continue. Do the folks who led the fight to keep all branches open want to show solidarity on Feb 5th with their British counterparts, perhaps? This SaveLibraries seems to be a catch-all for news on both sides of the Atlantic.

One powerful piece of oratory has emerged from this discussion in the UK: Philip Pullman's impassioned speech about the value of libraries. It's gone viral in a big way, as Benedicte Page writing in the Guardian recounts, and there's a reason. It's an incredible testament to the importance of libraries, but above the usual (and still valuable) personal stories about this great writer's various interactions with public libraries, it also cuts to the heart of the matter: libraries are disrespected for not generating revenue, for not actively participating in the capitalist game.

He first introduces this point after discussing the British government's ludicrous and conservative plan to turn the libraries over to volunteers instead of paid, qualified librarians, and how volunteers will then have to compete to get some cash from some pot of money the government sets aside that is vastly less than what they now provide for librarians. It's all deeply insulting on many layers, which Pullman explains, but then he steps back and criticizes
this whole competition, and where it comes from:

It’s imported the worst excesses of market fundamentalism into the one arena that used to be safe from them, the one part of our public and social life that used to be free of the commercial pressure to win or to lose, to survive or to die, which is the very essence of the religion of the market. Like all fundamentalists who get their clammy hands on the levers of political power, the market fanatics are going to kill off every humane, life-enhancing, generous, imaginative and decent corner of our public life. I think that little by little we’re waking up to the truth about the market fanatics and their creed. We’re coming to see that old Karl Marx had his finger on the heart of the matter when he pointed out that the market in the end will destroy everything we know, everything we thought was safe and solid. It is the most powerful solvent known to history. “Everything solid melts into air,” he said. “All that is holy is profaned.”

Market fundamentalism, this madness that’s infected the human race, is like a greedy ghost that haunts the boardrooms and council chambers and committee rooms from which the world is run these days.

Of course he's absolutely right. The government doesn't trust goodwill. It assumes the worst about humans, that it needs to give us a competition for pure hard cash as motivation. This mentality is blind to books and their value - Pullman's point.

And then folks, he takes the publishers to task. Oh be still my heart. This man has got my number:

In the world I know about, the world of books and publishing and bookselling, it used to be the case that a publisher would read a book and like it and publish it. They’d back their judgement on the quality of the book and their feeling about whether the author had more books in him or in her, and sometimes the book would sell lots of copies and sometimes it wouldn’t, but that didn’t much matter because they knew it took three or four books before an author really found his or her voice and got the attention of the public. And there were several successful publishers who knew that some of their authors would never sell a lot of copies, but they kept publishing them because they liked their work. It was a human occupation run by human beings. It was about books, and people were in publishing or bookselling because they believed that books were the expression of the human spirit, vessels of delight or of consolation or enlightenment.

Not any more, because the greedy ghost of market madness has got into the controlling heights of publishing. Publishers are run by money people now, not book people. The greedy ghost whispers into their ears: Why are you publishing that man? He doesn’t sell enough. Stop publishing him. Look at this list of last year’s books: over half of them weren’t bestsellers. This year you must only publish bestsellers. Why are you publishing this woman? She’ll only appeal to a small minority. Minorities are no good to us. We want to double the return we get on each book we publish.

So decisions are made for the wrong reasons. The human joy and pleasure goes out of it; books are published not because they’re good books but because they’re just like the books that are in the bestseller lists now, because the only measure is profit.

Right?! And the fact is, this is all true not just at the most commercial presses, but also at many non-profit presses, whether attached to non-profit organizations or universities. It's the mentality that has given way to a huge business in self-publishing, which in turn has left readers skeptical of books.

I have long said that we are asking too much of books. We put them next to other commodities that sell and say why can't they do more? There are so many readers, why can't we reach them all and make a bundle of money? We exploit them by testing markets with them - Ted Striphas explains this strategy, most recently used by Amazon who found their customers using books before moving on to tvs, toilet paper, toys, and more. We get too far from the importance of what is in books themselves.

So we look to presses and stores and libraries and we demand returns, quantifiable returns. But they're not always quantifiable. Pullman may be getting nostalgic and sentimental but I refuse to fault him for that. We can sit around and mock readers who talk about loving the smell of a book and the feel of the page, in response to diehard Kindlers, but there is meaning there. The fact that places like Amazon can keep a close count of what people are reading and even how they are reading each book they purchase - when they stop, what they highlight - is not a plus, to me, but a minus. (It's also deeply creepy and invasive.) You're pounding the fun out of reading and books by demanding to know every bit of data about this market.

With talk of Editors being replaced by Robots and Cyborgs, Pullman is right, and his call is increasingly important.

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