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In Barranquilla when Gabriel Garcia Marquez was growing up, the beating heart of the city for its young journalists, writers and politicians was the Libreria Mundo, a bookstore run by Don Jorge Rondon.
He ordered books, writes Mr Garcia Marquez, “above all the new books from Buenos Aires, where publishers had begun the translation, printing and mass distribution of new literature from all over the world following the Second World War. Thanks to them, we could read in a timely way books that otherwise would not have come to the city.”
Through this winding route, Mr Garcia Marquez discovered his blood family. He probed Faulkner’s writings “with the bloodthirsty zeal of a straight razor”, afraid that he was mistaken in his assessment of the man’s work. The bookstore owner set him straight, at one of their long literary evenings: “Don’t worry, Gabito,” he said. “If Faulkner were in Barranquilla, he would be at this table.”
One of the pledges made by Banned Books Week, when it began in the US in September-October 1982, was that along with highlighting censored books, it would also support the freedom to read. For many readers in the US, that freedom meant challenging bans on library books and putting controversial writers, from Maya Angelou to Harper Lee to John Steinbeck and J K Rowling, back into the public domain. For a reader like the young Garcia Marquez, the freedom to read translated into the discovery of where he belonged, the slow introductions to the other members of his literary family.
As Banned Books Week kicked off in the US this September 30, I read an old interview by Judith Krug, the librarian who had helped start BBW in 1982. That decade in the US had seen a sudden spike in the number of book bans. The American Library Association contacted Krug, among others, and suggested a protest; the protest grew into the present week-long celebration, and encouragement, of reading.
She had an interesting perspective on book bans: “If you look over the materials that have been challenged and banned over the years, they are the materials that speak to the condition of the human being, that try to illuminate the issues and concerns that affect human beings. They’re books that say something, and they’re books that have meaning to the reader. Innocuous materials are never challenged.” (Krug died in 2009.)
In both the US and in Mr Garcia Marquez’s Barranquilla, what is striking is how many elements had to come together, in order to create that elusive freedom to read. The US tradition of reading rests, as Krug puts it in an NYT interview, on “the concept of intellectual freedom”, the idea that libraries should “provide all pertinent information so that readers can decide for themselves”. Supporting that lofty ideal is a strong – if currently challenged – network of public libraries, associations such as PEN, the American Library Association and the Office for Intellectual Freedom. In practice, the aim is to make sure that no author, or publisher, has to fight a book ban or an act of censorship on their own, in isolation.
For Mr Garcia Marquez and his friends in Baranquilla, the presence of the Libreria Mundo allowed them to read a score of contemporaries with the same avidity that they had once brought to the works of Jules Verne or Rafael Sabatini. The coincidence of the publishing industry’s ability to translate and sell books at that moment in time may have incubated that generation of writers.
Over the last few years, the larger Indian English-language bookstores have changed in ways both useful and troubling. The rise of local pulp fiction has made bookstores accessible for readers who would have felt alienated from reading and books in a previous generation, and it is a pleasure to see that many mainstream bookstores now have sections in Hindi, Malayalam and other local languages. But there’s a parallel supermarket effect — the selection of books in stores like Landmark, Om Bookshop and other chains has become far narrower, far more filled with only the junk food and light reading that epitomises present bestseller culture.
Instead of creating space for all kinds of readers, today’s bookstores sell chiefly fast food for the mind, with endless Top Ten lists replacing any kind of meaningful variety. You cannot have true freedom to read in the absence of thriving indie bookstores, large and well-stocked chain stores, a strong library network and a culture of book clubs; our freedom to read in India is a thin and dangerously attenuated “freedom”.
The late Ray Bradbury reacted sharply when readers told him that Fahrenheit 451 (“Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner”) was a parable of censorship. It wasn’t, he said often and with heat. For him, Fahrenheit 451 was a cautionary fable about the way sucking on the glass teat of television had destroyed, or would destroy, reading, books and literature. If you accept his view of the story he wrote, sometimes the real censor isn’t the man with the gun; it’s the indifference of the marketplace.