By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
Nossel: ‘To Protect the Role of Books in Society’An update today (February 16) to our February 7 story on Scribd’s curation of banned books for consumers to read free of charge.
This afternoon, PEN America has contacted the news media about the establishment of The Dohle Book Defense Fund in partnership with Markus Dohle, worldwide CEO of Penguin Random House. The news, first reported by The New York Times (you can read Elizabeth A. Harris’ article here), comes amid a still-rising tide of reports involving parental demands for removal of various books from school curricula and libraries in the United States.
Dohle reportedly has pledged to make a personal, annual donation of US$100,000 for five years—a total half-million dollars—to stand up the fund which PEN says will boost its initiatives “to educate the public, partner with local community groups to advocate against censorship, track and expose the egregious assaults on books and ideas playing out in classrooms, state legislatures and other arenas.”
Dohle has been a member of PEN America’s board of trustees since 2016, and has served as that board’s executive vice-president. It’s reported that he hopes to prompt donations from others to the Dohle Book Defense Fund.
His commitment, as Publishing Perspectives readers know from his hourlong Frankfurt Studio-opening interview at Frankfurter Buchmesse, signals to the publishing industry’s internationalist community the gravity of the current waves of such censorship efforts.
At Frankfurt, Dohle was clear about the connection between freedom of expression, publication, and the health of a democracy.
“We know from psychology,” he said, “that immersing yourself into complex stories—particularly into complex characters—helps you to put yourself into other people’s shoes.
“It helps you to actually see the world from other points of view, and we know it creates empathy and human values, especially in young people. That’s what the world needs right now if we want to help defend our democracy, based on human values.
“Let’s get all kids reading in long-form, and I think we can make a good contribution to help our democracy, as we’ve enjoyed it for the last 75 years after World War II, to survive.
“I truly believe in the value of publishing but also in our responsibility to help our society, to come together and to heal from what has become a really, really polarized world.”
As PEN’s announcement points out, Dohle’s background of work in postwar Germany carries with it a compelling understanding of the dangers of suppression of free expression.
In her story at the Times, Harris writes, “During his career at Bertelsmann, the German media conglomerate that owns Penguin Random House, [Dohle] has worked in a number of restrictive environments, including Poland in the 1990s, Russia in the early 2000s, and today in China.”
The bannings, successful or not, “tie into the future of our democracy,” Dohle says to Harris.
In those comments, he’s reflecting a higher contextual view than many in their various countries sometimes perceive. It’s frequently remarked that the “it couldn’t happen here,” a misreading of authoritarian encroachments familiar to those who study democratic states’ degradation toward autocracy.
Book Bannings in the States, and Elsewhere
At international scale, of course, the work of Kristenn Einarsson‘s Freedom to Publish committee and its Prix Voltaire at the International Publishers Association in Geneva addresses these social aberrations.
In her book, How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them—released, as a matter of fact, by Penguin Random House/Crown on January 11—Barbara F. Walter discusses the treacherous political ground called anocracy or “semi-democracy,” a minefield in which a country’s democratic principles and institutions have been degraded and a state may be moving “from democratic backsliding to factionalization and the politics of resentment.”
And what someone of Dohle’s international purview can tell you is that the peril doesn’t reside only in the States. A quick scroll-down in an entry called “List of Books Banned by Governments” at Wikipedia reveals banned titles in a range of world markets at various times from Albania to Australia, from India to Italy, from Spain to the United Kingdom.
In October, there were stories in the Dutch press about “silent censorship” in educational literature involving lists of “sensitive” subjects gathered in cooperation with religious organizations. The English-language DutchNews.nl wrote, “Publishers are advised to avoid supernatural and legendary themes including pirates, ghosts and dragons, along with Harry Potter and any attribution of human characteristics to inanimate objects, such as talking trees.”
In November, Deutsche Welle reported, Singapore’s government on Monday blocked publication of a book on censorship, called Red Lines: Political Cartoons and the Struggle Against Censorship. Anyone convicted of importing, selling, distributing, making, or reproducing an objectionable publication will face a fine of up to 5,000 Singaporean dollars (US$3,700), imprisonment of up to a year, or both.”
In June, the International Publishers Association, the Federation of European Publishers (FEP), and the European and International Booksellers Federation (EIBF) joined Hungarian publishers in criticizing the Viktor Orban government for its new ban on school content relative to homosexuality and transgender issues.
And as early as 2016, PEN America had warned of a trend now coming into greater relief in the United States in which books targeted for bannings frequently have to do with racial and ethnic diversity, in their authors as well as topics.
At the time, Juergen Boos, president and CEO of Frankfurter Buchmesse, warned, “As publishing professionals, we should make every effort to integrate these issues into the general course of our business. It is essential to stay involved and fight those trying to impinge on the freedom to share information.”
Titled Missing From the Shelf: Book Challenges and Lack of Diversity in Children’s Literature, the release of PEN America’s 35-page report was timed to coincide with Banned Books Week in the United States. It took the extra step of bringing the issue of book bannings into close, troubling proximity with the wider, stubborn problem of a lack of diversity in publishing’s general output, especially for young readers—the industry’s future consumers.
In a prepared statement today, Suzanne Nossel, PEN America CEO, is quoted, saying, “We’re dealing with new challenges and bans every week, and these efforts are enmeshed in a larger political battle over the narratives that are accessible in this country.
“Given his background, Markus [Dohle] is deeply attuned to the dark sides that lurk within a society and how things can turn around quickly. With his support, PEN America is poised to continue leading the fight to uphold and protect the role of books in society.”
The news of Dohle seeding a new fund to combat the trend comes amid a still-rising tide of reports involving parental demands for removal of various books from school curricula and libraries in the United States—and wrenching hostility frequently displayed to those who serve on school boards and may be in the crossfire.
Reuters’ major report on Tuesday (February 15) from Gabriella Borter, Joseph Ax, and Joseph Tanfani captures a deep tide of anger, as “school board members across the United States have endued a rash of threats and hostile messages ignited by roiling controversies over policies on curtailing the coronavirus, bathroom access for transgender students, and the teaching of America’s racial history.”
One hopeful signal appears to lie in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri (ACLU) on behalf of two students and their families who are insisting that “the students have ‘a First Amendment right to be free from official conduct that was intended to suppress the ideas and viewpoints expressed in the banned books.'” The story is here reported by Kate Grumke at St. Louis Public Radio.
And the Los Angeles Times‘ Sarah Parvini reports today that after a Tennessee school board removed Pulitzer Prize-winning Art Spiegelman’s Maus series, Ryan Higgins at California’s Comics Conspiracy bookstore in Sunnyvale has been inundated with requests for the complete series, which he’s offered to donate to those asking for them.
More from Publishing Perspectives on the freedom of expression is here, more on the freedom to publish is here, more on banned books is here, more on Scribd is here, and more on the Prix Voltaire is here.
Publishing Perspectives is the world media partner of the International Publishers Association.
More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.