The most read books today are the best examples of books we do not need to read.
The state of the world today is dismal, impoverished and regressive. At least, this is how the majority of the world feels. For once if we consider that state as a valid reflection, then we do not have a single major work today of any relevance that gets into the bestseller’s list anywhere in the world.
An exhibitionist technological progress is running parallel with widespread poverty, sometimes the former thriving at the cost of the latter. Defense industry everywhere is continuing to grow despite its negative-return investments. Individual aggressiveness is the mainstay today replacing a collective will for social progress.
In times like these, a writer has a role to play. A side to choose. A writer must feel stifled, and hence must express the sentiments of the underrepresented. Utilizing the uniquely powerful medium of writing, writers have the potential indeed to change the world for the better. This could be a highly underrated opinion, but the reality is that the people who read books, do so selectively, with all voluntary knowledge and they exercise their choice to spend money of their own sweet will (much unlike any television programs, which are often adjudged by researches regarding their effectiveness in perception-making).
If among the literate circle, book (active choice) is more powerful medium than even the television (passive reception), then what are the books of the day preaching to the world?
To begin with, books come in all shapes, sizes and matters. They come from different publishers, cater to specific segments, are rated differently by a heterogeneous populace. And yet amidst all this apparent diversity of bibliophiles, there is a surprisingly staggering amount of cohesiveness when it comes to reading books. To vulgarize a phrase, book readers think alike. For example, there is a genre of book called Classics (of course no one says they are just the Western Classics) that includes books about Moby Dick, Tom Sawyer, Robin Hood, Three Musketeers, etc. None of us ever missed any of these during childhood. The stories were good. David Copperfield or the Man Friday. It used to be the most happening thing for us to read the classics in their original, abridged or translated form.
Fast-forward few decades and what we see is a flood from a different genre: the modern classics for the troubled times. The Chicken Soup series, the Deepak Chopras, the 7 Habits of Effective People, the Da Vinci Code, The World is Flat, The Alchemist, The Monk who sold his Ferrari, The Fountainhead.
Much like the old classics which glorified a colonial world by never questioning the status quo of the most horrendous periods of human history, the modern classics on the bestsellers list also help maintain the current world order by emphasizing continuity. The old guards White writers of the past century never wrote anything to condemn the slavery, to revolutionize the minds about the vast inequalities brought forth by feudal society that they helped build up in the third world. They even refused to imagine that the world divide was being perpetuated by their reactionary pens. East is East and West is West and never they were to meet. Not just Kipling, most of the European writers should have felt burdened by this guilt of carrying such bias, instead what they thought they were doing was bearing the White-man’s burden to civilize the savages.
The modern times have seen further downfall of intellectual capacities. Instead of effortlessly indicating the gross disparities and weaving ideas around bettering the existing conditions by challenging a self-fulfilling system, the ‘acclaimed’ writers have indulged themselves in preaching individualism and spiritual illusions.
For example, leading New York Times columnist and multiple Pulitzer winner Thomas Friedman’s exploratory history of the modern world has been the number one bestseller since it was released last year. The book of course declares the world as being flat, but does not indicate how badly vertical is the surface. Devoting a substantial section on India, Friedman is highly impressed by the cyber cities like Bangalore. The exoticisation is achieved in India not only by people like Friedman who fail to note that the IT industries have helped sky-rocket the rent prices of rooms for people who are not working in that sector, have forced people to give up Kannada in favor of America English if they want to survive the race, have made people accept the rape and murder of a call center executive of HP as though it was some professional hazard with an unapologetic HP still letting people take drunk cabbies back home.
With a conspicuous lack of critical reasoning which should help writers frame arguments against mindless displacement of mental means of productions, what we have instead is intellectual frauds like the Deepak Chopras. Reducing the matters to mind and calling the luxurious emotional upsurges as some aspect of spiritualism, these writers have made money out of innocence of the gullible. These so-called gurus have no inkling of the foundations of old Indian materialistic philosophies, the atheistic orientation of the East, which is far more ancient and critical than the enlightenment or rationalism of the modern Europe. Instead what they harp on is the easy path. The path of superstitions, the path of blind belief, the path of hero-worship, the path of sacred texts, the path of submissiveness. And we have The Alchemists and the Monks. The objectivism of Ayn Rand. The celebration of blatant individualism, the refusal to look like a member of community, the aversion towards uniformity, the love of the ego-centrism, the victory of the lone survivor (who of course enjoys defeating others in the race).
Social issues of significance never get discussed in these bestseller books of today. Only the quickest ways to solve individual dilemmas of careers or spiritualism, self-centred happiness or recovery from anguish resulting from selfish love triangles. And the book publishers along with the television channel owners, the big media conglomerates, the famous five white companies of the world that control everything we know every passing day, that converts news into entertainment and then says entertainment is the news—they constitute what we need to know and what writers need to write in order to sell.
Its not like there is a dearth of writers we need to read. Its just that they are not highlighted by the mainstream media. Purposively, it serves their interest of staying together. Else they would sink. Why else I never found a book written by Howard Zinn anywhere in Bangalore on my recent trip? Because its still the age of the Ayn Rand or the Alchemist. The age of the individual success, not of a collective revolutionary rage.
To continue with the example, let’s contrast mainstream Friedman with alternative Neruda and find out why the cultural czars had to send Neruda to exile and why they needed to glorify Friedman. If Neruda was the oppressed people’s representative, Friedman does sound like an agent for Microsoft and Infosys.
Naturally enough, Neruda who never served the elite interests could torch the flame, while Friedman, a child of the conglomerates still can’t see the light.
And therefore, I so much long that Friedman, the most famous writer of America today, author even a wee bit similar to what Chile’s most famous poet of yesteryears wrote more than three decades ago. Especially, since the times, with due apologies to Bob Dylan, have still not changed for a large part.
“I Begin by Invoking Walt Whitman” by Pablo Neruda:
Because I love my country
I claim you, essential brother,
old Walt Whitman with your gray hands,
so that, with your special help
line by line, we will tear out by the roots
this bloodthirsty President Nixon.
There can be no happy man on earth,
no one can work well on this planet
while that nose continues to breathe in Washington.
Asking the old bard to confer with me
I assume the duties of a poet
armed with a terrorist’s sonnet
because I must carry out with no regrets
this sentence, never before witnessed,
of shooting a criminal under siege,
who in spite of his trips to the moon
has killed so many here on earth
that the paper flies up and the pen is unsheathed
to set down the name of this villain
who practices genocide from the White House.