Friday 9 January 2009

A revolution for Culture

Who can doubt that 2009 will go down in history as one those fateful years that stand out in the history books, such as 1066, 1789, 1815, 1848, 1914, 1929 and 1939, an annus mirabilis, or, as the Queen called a more recent year that touched her family closely, an annus horribilis? The events of 1929, which ended with the Wall Street crash that brought in the Great Depression of the 1930s, have been forgotten, but recently rereading Galbraith’s The Great Crash of 1929 was very much like reading a history of today. We have forgotten everything and learned nothing.

And yet we are told that history is hardly taught at all any more, that school libraries are being thrown away, that reading is considered by teachers a rare eccentricity among their pupils. Indeed a history professor at St Andrews University recently told me that none of their first-year students had even heard of the French Revolution.

Of course, the advent of computers in the 1960s – and, since then, the spread of electronic media to convey information – is useful, but only a blinkered philistine can think that the printed word in book or newspaper form is finished. This year is the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth, and his theories of evolution, which have inspired such literary philosophers as Nietzsche and Shaw, and which have opened the way to a better understanding of what this human species is all about, have also spurred on science to ever more important discoveries, even while they have forced the non-philosophical religions to re-examine the premise that they have taken for granted for so long.

The thought inevitably arises: have we invented our own successors? Has the growth of artificial intelligence actively had the effect of reducing the intelligence of the human mind that has evolved over millions of years? How many people can work out figures in their heads having never learned a times-table and how to multiply and divide without a calculator? We know the low level of spelling ability in school children and how little general knowledge is about – other than that promoted by the fashion industry. Our long tradition of high culture in literature, music, drama, painting and philosophy, and their equivalents in the scientific world, is increasingly derided by uneducated politicians whose populist, lower-common-denominator outlook makes a nonsense of democracy, something which only works where the electorate is educated to the highest possible standard.

Around the world we see ruthless dictators using democracy to reduce education, increase their power, enslave the masses and spread poverty, disease and hunger. In what – up to now – have been the richer parts of the world, regulation has been reduced to the point where many countries are now ungovernable, and the party system is so broken down that a majority of thinking people see no party they want to vote for with confidence.

These issues are too many and too varied for a blog, so I shall return to history, something which is still best understood through the newly despised book, which for my generation at least is still highly prized. The book can last for centuries, and is still the cheapest and easiest way of retaining and spreading knowledge. It was dealt a heavy blow when the two major political parties in Britain, on the most spurious argument, one long since disproved, decided that the Net Book Agreement, which had protected the responsible book-producers for nearly a century, was anti-competitive. Behind this political move lay the greed and ambition of giant, globalized publishers, not interested in the book as a vehicle of culture and knowledge, but only in killing off competition from real publishers and real booksellers who took pride in their profession and what they gave the world. Increasingly, the books that are most needed are not available or not being published.

There can be little doubt that 2009 will see many extraordinary events and some revolutions. It is time for a counter-revolution concerning books. First of all, reading from infancy onwards must be revived. That means that from the new army of unemployed new teachers must be trained and put to work. Secondly, a new campaign to make books more available, in every kind of library, in new bookshops, and in homes is needed. New methods of disseminating books must be thought out and more should be published. I think there is a frustrated minority that can grow, people who want to know more, read more, become more interesting. What is needed is to find those people – who must be somewhere – who can lead a new movement towards a wider and better culture, away from shallow fashion and ignorant politicians.

A revival of the Net Book Agreement is possible, but like all reforms it will take time and much lobbying. We have, for years, been undergoing a cultural revolution, less severe than the Chinese one of the 1960s. It was, of course, misnamed: it was a revolution against culture. Now we need one for culture, and for the spread of knowledge and civilized values in a world that is deteriorating. The bleak economic present is not necessarily all that bad. It might revive community spirit and bring back what the human brain and imagination can produce, as against the pap on so many television screens.

Recent articles in the Bookseller show that minds are working on the same lines. Perhaps 2009 might produce some positive events after all.

John Calder

1 comment:

  1. Some good points here John. I think you bought a copy of The Great Crash from our shop in Lower Marsh - glad it provided food for thought.

    Great to see Alma are to publish Bolano in this country. I am reading the US version of 2666 and loving it. Have also read the Savage Detectives and many short stories - I think he is a great writer - "proper" literature.


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