Friday, November 02, 2007

What Can One Person Do, Anyway?


I went to the Frankfurt book fair this year. It's the oldest book fair in the world, goes back to around 1200, when books were written by hand, and now it's the biggest scrum on the planet. Living in Chicago, I'm used to McCormick Place, but the Buchmesse buildings could swallow McCormick Place and come back for seconds.

There are 400,000 books on display at the fair, ranging from Ich Nicht to A History of Heat Transfer, and they cheered me up and depressed me at the same time--depressed me because when you see so much in print, you think, why bother adding to the heap? What is your little ant-like voice trying to accomplish, anyway. But they cheered me because they gave me the illusion that the book is a robust "delivery vehicle" for stories and ideas, despite people getting Jane Austen on their Blackberries.

I met book wholesalers from around the world, and they, too, are in love with the word on the page. I learned that in India and South Africa, English continues to be an important language of literature, but that in Lebanon, it's French. Lebanon has its own big book fair every fall; it takes place just about now, and the French writers who come are crucial for the fair's success. Two weeks ago the French government withdrew all French writers from the fair. They think it is all too likely that the U.S. will start bombing Iran at any moment and if that's the case, no one in the Middle East will be safe.

The Lebanese wholesaler was distraught. She has already lost a grandmother and a brother in the bombings of the last decades, from Israel, from Hamas, from Syria. "You don't know what it's like, to be lying in a cellar, not knowing where your family is, not knowing if you'll have a home to return to when the bombs stop falling," she said, and she's right. "You don't know what it feels like, the uncertainty, not knowing if each day you can live your life, or if the planes and the bombs will come again."

She challenged me to find a way to stop the madness, stop my country from dropping more bombs, this time on Iran. I wish I could. I've called the White House and sent my e-mails to Senators and to Dick Cheney. Tell me what else I can do to stop them.

By the way, Ich Nicht is the memoir of the Fest family, who own Frankfurt's main newspaper. They stood up to the Nazi regime for twelve years. The book details all the meannesses they suffered as a result, including loss of the newspaper, and the stress on the family for opposing Hitler, but it also shows how one person can stay moral in the midst of insanity. No one in America wants to publish it.

Sara Paretsky
Chicago November 2007


Barbara D'Amato said...

People still have to speak out, even though it's frustrating. But I wish I didn't feel like the kiss of death when I vote.

Barbara said...

I think all of us are deeply frustrated by this issue - "what can I do?" after already doing what we're supposed to do to participate in the political process and getting zero response. It sometimes seems broken beyond repair, and that distances us and our outrage wears us out.

Nobody seems surprised or concerned, for example, that the NSA datamining of phone and internet communications started months before 9/11, for example - it's outrageous even with the attack as an excuse, but it was apparently the plan from the start.

Writing is a way to at least make a stand. A book like James Lee Burke's Tin Roof Blowdown may sink in in ways that the numbing news from New Orleans - still broken, nobody taking responsibility - fails to move us. We need stories when everything else fails to connect.

Keep writing, Sara.

ab said...

Thanks, Sara. We need to remind ourselves and encourage each other. Where is the film or book that will not just die in a sea of hopelessness and despair, but wake us up and shame the ones who need to be shamed? President Kennedy was deeply moved by Rachel Carson's "Silent spring" about the environmental pollution. Can there be an equivalent for all this warfare and negligence of democratic principles? What would it look like?

Maryann Mercer said...

What truly bothers me, or at least bothers me more than booksellers suffering because this country is perceived as ready to strike at Iran, is the fact that no publisher in this country, supposedly famed for creativity and freedom to disseminate ideas, is willing to publish Ich Nicht. Why the hell not? It's history. Human courage in the face of adversity is a powerful subject. Or does something about the book sound all too familiar?
I vote...and I write Durbin, Obama, Johnson,etal. It IS frustrating, but a lot of "one"s add up when people put their minds to it. Change can be affected. It just sometimes takes longer than a lot of us have the patience to wait. JMHO of course...great and thought provoking post.

Maryann Mercer said...

I should clarify...before someone asks...the fact that booksellers suffer anywhere is horrible, and especially because of assumptions about this country's actions makes it more so. It's just that the thought hitting me first was the lack of courage in this country to publish a book that raises questions and shows that human courage is often greater than we know. Sorry if I sounded callous. A person's livelihood is not something I take lightly.

Sara Paretsky said...

Thank you for your thoughtful responses. You're right, Maryann--sometimes I do get discouraged, but it's no reason to quit. And I understood what you were saying, re booksellers & Ich Nicht--and agree with you on both counts.

AB and Barbara, we do need to keep writing in the hopes we influence someone to take action. Maybe anotehr book like Silent Spring is having an effect on our next president--if he or she can stop raising money long enough to read a book!