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

Share
Single Page

More from Harper’s Magazine:

Weekly Review February 18, 2020, 1:40 pm

Weekly Review

American passengers who were evacuated from a quarantined cruise ship later tested positive for COVID-19; Trump complained about Roger Stone’s recommended sentencing; three quarters of Malta’s traffic police were arrested for suspected fraud

Podcast February 12, 2020, 11:12 am

Selective Hearing

Towards a critical understanding of podcasts

Weekly Review February 11, 2020, 4:37 pm

Weekly Review

Donald Trump was impeached but not removed from office; the novel coronavirus death toll in China rose above nine hundred; a hunting convention auctioned off a trip to shoot Sitka black-tailed deer in Alaska with “accomplished conservationist” Donald Trump Jr.

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2020

Trumpism After Trump

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My Gang Is Jesus”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Cancer Chair

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Birds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Skinning Tree

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Interpretation of Dreams

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dearest Lizzie

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Trumpism After Trump·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The city was not beautiful; no one made that claim for it. At the height of summer, people in suits, shellacked by the sun, moved like harassed insects to avoid the concentrated light. There was a civil war–like fracture in America—the president had said so—but little of it showed in the capital. Everyone was polite and smooth in their exchanges. The corridor between Dupont Circle and Georgetown was like the dream of Yugoslav planners: long blocks of uniform earth-toned buildings that made the classical edifices of the Hill seem the residue of ancestors straining for pedigree. Bunting, starched and perfectly ruffled in red-white-and-blue fans, hung everywhere—from air conditioners, from gutters, from statues of dead revolutionaries. Coming from Berlin, where the manual laborers are white, I felt as though I was entering the heart of a caste civilization. Untouchables in hard hats drilled into sidewalks, carried pylons, and ate lunch from metal boxes, while waiters in restaurants complimented old respectable bobbing heads on how well they were progressing with their rib eyes and iceberg wedges.

I had come to Washington to witness either the birth of an ideology or what may turn out to be the passing of a kidney stone through the Republican Party. There was a new movement afoot: National Conservatives, they called themselves, and they were gathering here, at the Ritz-Carlton, at 22nd Street and M. Disparate tribes had posted up for the potlatch: reformacons, blood-and-soilers, curious liberal nationalists, “Austrians,” repentant neocons, evangelical Christians, corporate raiders, cattle ranchers, Silicon Valley dissidents, Buckleyites, Straussians, Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Tories, dark-web spiders, tradcons, Lone Conservatives, Fed-Socs, Young Republicans, Reaganites in amber. Most straddled more than one category.

Article
The Cancer Chair·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The second-worst thing about cancer chairs is that they are attached to televisions. Someone somewhere is always at war with silence. It’s impossible to read, so I answer email, or watch some cop drama on my computer, or, if it seems unavoidable, explore the lives of my nurses. A trip to Cozumel with old girlfriends, a costume party with political overtones, an advanced degree on the internet: they’re all the same, these lives, which is to say that the nurses tell me nothing, perhaps because amid the din and pain it’s impossible to say anything of substance, or perhaps because they know that nothing is precisely what we both expect. It’s the very currency of the place. Perhaps they are being excruciatingly candid.

There is a cancer camaraderie I’ve never felt. That I find inimical, in fact. Along with the official optimism that percolates out of pamphlets, the milestone celebrations that seem aimed at children, the lemonade people squeeze out of their tumors. My stoniness has not always served me well. Among the cancer staff, there is special affection for the jocular sufferer, the one who makes light of lousy bowel movements and extols the spiritual tonic of neuropathy. And why not? Spend your waking life in hell, and you too might cherish the soul who’d learned to praise the flames. I can’t do it. I’m not chipper by nature, and just hearing the word cancer makes me feel like I’m wearing a welder’s mask.

Article
“My Gang Is Jesus”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When Demétrio Martins was ready to preach, he pushed a joystick that angled the seat of his wheelchair forward, slowly lifting him to a standing position. Restraints held his body upright. His atrophied right arm lay on an armrest, and with his left hand, he put a microphone to his lips. “Proverbs, chapter fourteen, verse twelve,” he said. “ ‘There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is . . .’ ”

The congregation finished: “ ‘Death.’ ”

The Assembly of God True Grapevine was little more than a fluorescent-lit room wedged between a bar and an empty lot in Jacaré, a poor neighborhood on Rio de Janeiro’s north side. A few dozen people sat in the rows of plastic lawn chairs that served as pews, while shuddering wall fans circulated hot air. The congregation was largely female; of the few men in attendance, most wore collared shirts and old leather shoes. Now and then, Martins veered from Portuguese into celestial tongues. People rose from their seats, thrust their hands into the air, and shouted, “Hallelujah!”

Article
The Birds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On December 7, 2016, a drone departed from an Amazon warehouse in the United Kingdom, ascended to an altitude of four hundred feet, and flew to a nearby farm. There it glided down to the front lawn and released from its clutches a small box containing an Amazon streaming device and a bag of popcorn. This was the first successful flight of Prime Air, Amazon’s drone delivery program. If instituted as a regular service, it would slash the costs of “last-mile delivery,” the shortest and most expensive leg of a package’s journey from warehouse to doorstep. Drones don’t get into fender benders, don’t hit rush-hour traffic, and don’t need humans to accompany them, all of which, Amazon says, could enable it to offer thirty-minute delivery for up to 90 percent of domestic shipments while also reducing carbon emissions. After years of testing, Amazon wrote to the Federal Aviation Administration last summer to ask for permission to conduct limited commercial deliveries with its drones, attaching this diagram to show how the system would work. (Amazon insisted that we note that the diagram is not to scale.) Amazon is not the only company working toward such an automated future—­UPS, FedEx, Uber, and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, have similar programs—­but its plans offer the most detailed vision of what seems to be an impending reality, one in which parce­l-toting drones are a constant presence in the sky, doing much more than just delivering popcorn.

Article
The Skinning Tree·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Every year in Lusk, Wyoming, during the second week of July, locals gather to reenact a day in 1849 when members of a nearby band of Sioux are said to have skinned a white man alive. None of the actors are Native American. The white participants dress up like Indians and redden their skin with body paint made from iron ore.

The town prepares all year, and the performance, The Legend of Rawhide, has a cast and crew of hundreds, almost all local volunteers, including elementary school children. There are six generations of Rawhide actors in one family; three or four generations seems to be the average. The show is performed twice, on Friday and Saturday night.

The plot is based on an event that, as local legend has it, occurred fifteen miles south of Lusk, in Rawhide Buttes. It goes like this: Clyde Pickett is traveling with a wagon train to California. He tells the other Pioneers: “The only good Injun’s a dead Injun.” Clyde loves Kate Farley, and to impress her, he shoots the first Indian he sees, who happens to be an Indian Princess. The Indians approach the Pioneers and ask that the murderer give himself up. Clyde won’t admit he did it. The Indians attack the wagon train and, eventually, Clyde surrenders. The Indians tie Clyde to the Skinning Tree and flay him alive. Later, Kate retrieves her dead lover’s body and the wagon train continues west.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The commissioner of CPB admitted that “leadership just got a little overzealous” when detaining hundreds of U.S. citizens of Iranian descent in the wake of Qassem Soleimani’s assassination.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today