Commentary — May 3, 2011, 10:12 am

On Books and the Middle East Uprisings

Below is the text of a speech delivered by Arnaud Nourry, chair and chief executive officer of Hachette Livre, one of the world’s largest publishing houses, at the PEN Literary Gala, which took place at the American Museum of Natural History in New York on April 26. “Still today, in our digital age,” Nourry said, “[books] are the sparks that light the process of change.”

It is for me a great honor and a pleasure to be with you tonight, at this very special time for writers, publishers and citizens around the world. Every part of our environment seems to be rapidly changing, with digital becoming mainstream on one hand, and the world undergoing profound transformations on the other hand. The revolutions in the Arab world have confirmed that democracy is not only for the few nations that have invented the concept. It has universal appeal and is a new and realistic aspiration in places where the notion seemed remote only weeks ago. The instruments that make this happen are words and images.

Much has been written about the “two-dot-zero revolution” taking place in the Middle East and the key role played by social networks such as Facebook and Twitter in coordinating demonstrations and sending out evidence of huge crowds or violent crackdowns. SMSs, videos and tweets spread quickly and exponentially. But, in all three cases, speed takes precedence over accuracy or fairness, as each sender wants to be the first to get the word out or relay the news. And reliable news websites that still enforce the standards of fact checking and reporting are under pressure to deliver the news quickly, because they are competing with consumer generated content, and with each other.

Of course, there is no denying that the internet and its many avatars have become major tools for the advancement of democracy in places where the media are smothered or clunky—or both. But [is a world of] SMS, tweets, and consumer generated content the only world we want to live in? And where does this leave us, book publishers, writers?

Yes, we can move faster with the new digital tools that are available to us. We can put out a book within days of receiving the manuscript. We can assign teams of writers the task of creating a book in a matter of weeks, sometimes even days. And we do. But the race for instant information is one we—book publishers—can never win. It is probably one we should not enter, because our mission is not to add noise to noise, but to deliver meaning and to inspire. And speed so often defeats meaning.

I don’t want to sound nostalgic, but think of the role books have played as seeds of political and social change. Think of the massive shift in public perception generated by essays such as Democracy in America, or On the Origins of Species, or by novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin or A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. And more recently, and more to the point, wouldn’t you agree that The Yacoubian Building or Reading Lolita in Tehran have contributed a lot to our awareness of—and to a certain extent, to self-awareness within—the Muslim world?

Social media may fan the flames of rebellion once the fire has started, but still today, in our digital age, [books] are the sparks that light the process of change—a process that can smolder for years. The works I mentioned were long in the writing, and could never fit into the ultra-short formats of instant messaging. They needed to be books! And being books helped them make their mark, defying bans and censorship.

I am not saying that we publishers should only take the long term view and forget all the hot stuff that is so essential to our businesses and so much fun to publish—sometimes. What I mean is key to our survival in the world of culture and to our contribution to the cause of democracy: in this digital era, Time on our side and should be considered a competitive advantage, not a handicap. Because created with enough time, only books do justice to the complexity, the nuances, and the emotions of the human experience. More than ever, the free thinkers of the world need us and need books to deliver their message and tell their stories in such a way that they can be absorbed, not consumed.

Books have another, competitive advantage over instant mass communication: they can’t be turned off. Facebook or Twitter can be silenced by throwing a switch, as the five-day blackout in Egypt has shown. China has successfully imposed censorship on America’s top internet companies. In other terms, cyberspace can be decreed a no-fly zone by any government aiming at choking the free flow of information on the territory it controls.
Not so with poems, essays and novels. The paper on which they are printed might be seized or burnt, their authors silenced, but somehow their works tend to survive and be reborn from their own ashes after a period of time. You can’t kill a book after publication, because no security force can track down every copy that was sold, and because a single copy is all it takes to start a new fresh publication cycle. The Turkish government is finding this out the hard way as it goes door to door in an attempt to stamp out Ahmet Sik’s book, The Imam’s Army. Even in the worst years of the Soviet Union, Dr. Zhivago, The Gulag Archipelago, found their ways out of the country to become worldwide best sellers. Authors are mortal, and their lives can be made miserable by autocrats and tyrants. But books, like cats, have nine lives.

So, dear friends and colleagues, let us not bury the book prematurely, and let’s remain book publishers, not content providers. Our world, more than ever, needs books and needs publishers, democracy still needs both, and the world’s persecuted and harassed writers and poets that PEN has taken under its wing still desperately need our support to stand up, day after day, in their fight for freedom and democracy.

Arnaud Nourry

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