An American academic friend wrote today to ask me ‘so David, what’s up with your people?!‘ Good question. It seems to be one of the favourite moments in the movie Indianna Jones and The Last Crusade though, certainly mine, when Indy bumps into Hitler at the Berlin books burning and the Furher signs his diary. Someone pointed out that the sequence is set in 1938, and the book burnings really happened in 1933, but we already know that fantasy plays with fact, and Spielburg always does that brilliantly. Before the US or anyone starts to gloat about London though, I was, before my recent attempt to leave behind a bad ‘past’, going to use it to create a viral video and attack not what is happening in London, but my American publisher Abrams, for their own attitude to my books, and to free speech too. Because when a publisher does that to its own author and work, in a kind of bonefire of the vanities and values, something is seriously wrong.

But now London has been burning, a point came up on Newsnight yesterday from a ‘Free School‘ proponent about the search for ‘bling‘, quick cash and the fact that you have not seen looters attacking Waterstones, only the trainers stores, mobile phone shops and bookies nearby (as in the gamboling shops, not the printers or binders!). Of course, it makes the very good point that there is no deeper social statement being made, it is a mix of frustration, aggression and directed criminality, but it’s also a very middle class thing to say. It would be almost reassuring to see our angry youth trying to break into Waterstones, to get their hands on bundles of The Master and Margerita, The End of the Affair, War and Peace or Brazzaville Beach and flog them down the Old Kent road, or read them to each other by bonefire light. The bigger point, of course, is the frightening figures suggesting 17% of 15 year olds are functionally illiterate, fed by the addictions of the image, MTV values (coming out of America too) and all the hypocrisies that Big Brother, Celebrity and fame obsessed culture engenders. In the modern crisis of publishing too though, in the spawning of celebrity biogs, ‘ how I made it rich’ tales and the decline of writer’s voices in the democratisation of publishing methods, there are subtler ways of producing real book burnings at work. But people need to be literate in a great many ways. Reading literate, emotionally literate, professionally literate, legally literate and especially socially literate. Something like one in three London parents also say they are not confident enough to read aloud to their children, and that storytelling process is a key part of bonding, mentoring and sharing values.

Apart from the policing questions though, and political grand standing, apart from economic and moral arguments, especially about family and community structures and responsible mentoring, in the ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’ mould, there needs to be a very real debate about culture too and what, if anything, it means nowadays. About the decline of communities, the dislocations of social networking and perhaps, above all, about the shift from a reading culture, to a visual and news driven one, twenty-four hours a day, that is itself massively addictive. The eye finds it hard to resist a moving object. Not only are markets connected world-wide though, but so is a Western world ‘culture’, and to be frank, especially with my own New York publishing experience, there are many bad things to say about that too. I remember very well being in New York though when there were minor riots, because of a limit on the number of Playstations available, so perhaps no-one is immune. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all sit down together and read a good book! In the pro-free speech and anti-book burning argument though, it is the paradox of freedom that we probably need less forms of entertainment and product, not more, just more of a sense of some shared culture and one that brings both value and meaning.

The photo shows the Wikepedia photo by David Shankbone of books burned by the Nazis, at the Yad Vashem memorial.


Filed under America and the UK, Books, Community, Culture, Education


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