Monday 15 December 2008

"A patched-up affair, if you ask my opinion." (T.S. Eliot)

Reading blogs about the position of publishing and all matters that touch the book, reading, the distribution of information, knowledge and culture quickly blends into the prevailing worldview of a period of growing catastrophe that anyone with the ability to think should have seen coming a decade ago.

Everything tries to imitate nature in Schopenhauer’s sense. That is to say that things get bigger and bigger and inevitably worse and worse because nobody can understand something that is too big. Every bubble must burst one day and plenty turns to waste. Schools are throwing out their libraries to make more space for computers, television sets and all the other placebos that replace reason based on thinking and the ability of minds to be individualistic. It is no surprise that fundamentalism is returning, not only in religion, but in political and economic ideology. Who reads the great thinkers of the age of enlightenment, from Voltaire, Hume and Burke to Darwin, Marx, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Shaw, Freud and Russell? Who even has the will to look them up in reference books to get an inkling of what they had to say?

Every age and every part of the map of our planet has known two cultures, one of knowledge-seekers (not necessarily for a humanitarian or worthy or moral cause, as greed is often as much a motive as a sense of right and wrong) and one of those who simply want to float through life without doing other than satisfying the appetites for nourishment, pleasure and empty entertainment. Only a small minority of homes possess a dictionary, let alone any other book. The treasures of great literature, music, art and intellectual culture are known to only a few, ignored by those elected to govern, neglected by education. More than any other factor it is those treasures that divide human beings, after millions of years of evolution, from the lower animals, even those we love as pets who share some of our potential for understanding the world about us.

That we are moving backwards in evolution can no longer be doubted. The world, with few exceptions, has become ungovernable because the most intelligent among us have decided not to waste their short lives in arguing causes that people are not willing to try to understand. In many parts of the world to be known as intelligent or to express opinions is too dangerous. Huxley and Orwell have given us different, but highly probable, predictions of the future and in some cases of the present. Weaponry is capable of destroying us all and fanaticism is willing to use it.

What has this to do with publishing? If publishing has any function it is to educate us to know what is best for us. Fashion, manipulated by those seeking profit or power, has nothing to do with education. The state cannot educate, but the individual can educate him- or herself. Making us want to learn, to know, to think is what education is about, and nothing can replace the book to focus attention and concentration, which no longer is encouraged in the young. But one must always hope for change, and the present economic crisis, which will continue for at least a decade unless a world war or totalitarian regime forces us to face reality, may bring about a change of mind. The bursting bubble will bring much pain, but it might also bring relief. What is needed are a few great minds able to find a way to understand our situation and make us face the real world, not the chimera that press, politicians and ignorant celebrities put in front of us.

John Calder

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