By Edward Nawotka
When people ask me why I chose to focus on writing about books after several years working as foreign correspondent, my answer is simple: no one has yet threatened to kill me over a book.
Writing about business and politics in places like Belfast, Bucharest, Jakarta and Lusaka elicited several death threats — some of them genuine. The worst that’s happened to me as a literary journalist and book critic is that I’ve been cold-shouldered at cocktail parties and been yelled at by more than a few publicists and CEOs. Okay, in the United States I once had conservative political pundit Ann Coulter call me ugly names online, which elicited her fans to write even uglier things to me, but that is mild compared to what a Zambian policeman once threatened to do to me (“I promise I make you disappear in the bush…poof, like dust..and no one ever find you again…”).
The thing about books is that if you disagree with the one you’re reading, you can close the book and pick up another that is more to your taste. This, regrettably, is not the case everywhere in the world. In the Middle East, in Asia, in Latin America, and yes, even in Europe and North America, there are places where books and reading materials are tightly controlled, censored and banned. Readers are being deliberately starved of alternate points of view, be they political, religious or social.
When this happens it is, essentially, a form of mind control. And it is no more insidious than when foisted on the most vulnerable — the very young.
There will be people who will complain that we published a story like today’s feature about an American NGO that plans to deliver books to Palestine to encourage children to read. Some will protest the fact that we quoted someone characterizing Palestine one way, Israel another.
So be it. It is the perspective of that individual. This site is called Publishing Perspectives for a reason and alternate, opposing points of view are welcome (just keep it civil). Offering a forum for these differing points-of-view goes to the very heart of what we do as members of the publishing community.
The point of publishing such an article is to reiterate once again that there is simply no better way to begin to bridge a cultural divide than through books, a wide variety of, translated from nations across the world.
What is political and religious fundamentalism — that which has caused so many problems for so many people — but a failure to read well? Learning to engage with a text and interpret its incongruities, subtleties, and nuance is the first step.
Books aren’t the answer, but they are the beginning.