Literary diplomacy

While in the US, I had a very interesting conversation with a French professor of immigration law and history and a former employer of mine, Patrick Weil. His idea: the US government should take all (or even a significant fraction) of the millions it spends on “public diplomacy” and use that sum to buy books from American publishers and distribute those books to foreign countries. I know, I know, this plan reeks of “redistribution,” “government subsidies” for a flagging industry, and, dare I put it in type, even socialism – but I think it’s genius, and here is why.

Everyone who knows me well knows I have a thing for books surpassed only by some of my friends’ fetishes for books (I’m thinking of my dear friend who enjoys just whiffing the printed page, exhilarated even by the smell). Furthermore, for a while after finishing my BA degree, I worked with Prof. Weil to create the American branch of his Paris-based NGO, Libraries Without Borders (LWB). (I will say now that everyone should stop reading now and go the LWB webpage to donate either books or money… and then return to finish reading this post.) This necessitated still more time spent thinking about books, collecting books and loving them.

I mention my connection to LWB not only to highlight my penchant for books but also because I believe in LWB’s mission. The organization redistribute used books and textbooks from Western institutions to institutions – schools, libraries, universities – in developing countries. I left LWB when I went to grad school in the UK, and in the time since they have done a remarkable job [re-] building libraries and their collections in Rwanda and post-earthquake Haiti, among other places. Patrick’s belief (and mine) is that if you catch a man a fish, he can eat for a day, but if you give a man a book about fishing, he can feed himself for his whole lifetime – as can his neighbors and descendants, provided at least one person in the village can read, even if the original man kicks the bucket before teaching anyone else. Books are therefore the ultimate tool for empowerment and self-actualization.

But books transmit values as well as ideas, and they do so in a non-coersive and un-intrusive way. According to a March 2010 article inThe Huffington Post, The US government budgeted almost $600 million in 2011 for “public diplomacy” efforts with highly dubious and hard-to-measure results; as illustrated in the article and in my personal experience as a summer intern in a public diplomacy branch of the State Department some years ago, US public diplomacy efforts are also often construed as ideological and threatening, despite the best efforts of well-meaning State Department employees to be just the opposite. Books might allow us to communicate our positive values, in all their complexity, without engendering any further hostility.

Moreover, Patrick’s idea solves two real, extant problems – one domestic, one international. First, the American publishing industry, the global leader, is famously faltering. In allowing it to do so in the name of “market principles” (to which we do not subject our agricultural industry, mind you) we are sacrificing a key tool in our global cultural influence. Turning government funds towards our publishing industry might provide it the injection of capital it needs to be re-energized, or at least continue to survive. Second, many countries simply lack books and desire them. Therefore, this plan provides supply where there is a real demand.

The second point – the solution to an international problem – is evident to me here in Central Asia. There are not enough books. At my time at the state university in Almaty, which many students and people consider the best university in the country (although that is up for debate), I have rarely seen any students carrying books. I’ve also asked several times for both students and faculty to show me the school’s library; without fail, they demur, citing one or another excuse. I suspect this is because there are no books in the library. This suspicion, though it perhaps sounds wild, is not without basis: a Norwegian exchange student at the rival “best” university in town complained to me that the “international relations / political science” section of their university library holds only ten books, nine of which are textbooks.

I encountered this problem In Tashkent, Uzbekistan, as well. The center of academia and learning during the Soviet period, Tashkent has suffered a severe brain-drain. Recently the president commissioned a brand new white-tile, blue-reflective-window several-storey national library, but it is not open to the public or to foreigners – again because there are simply no books in it.

My understanding is that many of the books that had been in Soviet Central Asia had belonged to Russians; indeed, Russians have a wonderful literary culture and, by tradition, cherish books and libraries much more so than Westerners. The story goes that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when many Russians emigrated “back” to Mother Russia, they took their books with them. As for books in state institutions, it is likely that these were insufficiently cared for or sold during the tough economic times in Central Asia in the 1990s.

Therefore, there is a real need for books in post-Soviet Central Asia, and in Kazakhstan, at least, many people really want English-language books in particular. Therefore, with regards to American national interests, it makes both political and economic sense to reorient America’s considerable budget for public diplomacy towards the export of our many wonderful academic, artistic, literary and cultural publications. What better way to illustrate our diversity of interests and views and the accomplishment of our academics and cultural figures than to ship their books abroad?

  1. Mary said:

    The good news is that many US embassy public diplomacy offices have active book distribution programs, spending up to $50,000 to $100,000 annually on books. State also has book translation programs to translate important US books on economics, political science, and history, as well as novels, into several key world languages for distribution to libraries and individuals abroad.

    The bad news is that books are expensive and shipping costs almost as much – so State might welcome contributions in the form of subsidies from the publishing industry, and/or other types of public-private partnerships.

    A real issue, though, is a limited reading culture in many countries – and with the spread of digital media, the number of book lovers isn’t growing much. Even at the university level, people may be seeking access to academic journals more than books for their library. So ‘public diplomats’ – even those (and there are quite a few) with a thing for books themselves – recognize that they just can’t put all their eggs in the book basket.

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