Trigger Warning (As If)

So, since last year, there has been global talk lately of instituting trigger warnings on books, ostensibly to warn people of potentially upsetting themes or scenes in a work of literature. It seems to be originating from students in the USA who are afraid of themes such as suicide, war, rape and racism in books.

To some extent, I can understand why some might see this as necessary. Rape scenes in books have their place as an exploration of the terrible act and how it affects our lives, but for a rape survivor, a warning might help avoid an unwanted recollection. But that said, we find ourselves back in the murky of arbiters. Who decides the trigger warnings? Publisher? Author? Distributor? Independent body of psychologists? Or worse, parents and schools? Considering the harm the MPAA (the ratings body in America) does to any movie more interesting or challenging than Transformers, do we really want someone deciding what is safe to read, and what isn’t? For religious readers, do we need to start putting blasphemy warnings on books? Do we really need another bullshit fatwa over a book that doesn’t deserve it?

It’s an old example, but always a useful one; consider that 90’s capsule American americanpsycho-book-coverPsycho. It is a study in ultra-violence, hyper-masculinity, the pointless excesses of yuppie life (exhibit A: the mineral water scene) and was way ahead of Wolf of Wall Street when it comes to looking at how the ultra-rich live. American Psycho would have so many trigger warnings that it would be unmarketable to anyone under the age of thirty. It is a shocking book, and remains relevant now. Sure, it is an uncomfortable read, but it has a valid point to make on how hideous excess wealth can be. Patrick Bateman buys women like other people buy steaks, and rapes and maims and kills. His wealth and position in society makes it easy for him to be utterly reprehensible. That’s a comment worth making, but it isn’t an easy one to read.

The idea of warning people about the contents of books with a neat label on the back (I really hope not the front of the book) denigrates the idea of intellectual exchange and growth. Treating every reader as an ignorant and fragile snowflake incapable of dealing with ideas in books should be unacceptable to a society that saw books being banned for just their titles less than 50 years ago. Books are already constantly challenged by supposedly well-meaning adults: Captain Underpants, Catcher in The Rye, Harry Potter and more often ignite some feeble-minded rage about what kids shouldn’t read. Adding another layer of interference in publishing bodes ill.

Let the people write whatever they want, and let the readers make decisions based on their own experience, and posterity will sort out the rest. I’m not sure that any intellectually curious reader would appreciate being told what is and isn’t safe reading. Otherwise, anything more interesting than a grade 1 reader will be emblazoned: warning: this book might upset you.

Podcast: Catalogues, Books and Writing

So I wandered into a lovely office in a nursery in Johannesburg to speak at Radio Today,Whale poster a community radio station, to talk about the Exclusive Books catalogue that took four months to produce and is now a glorious, bountiful collection of books.

We also talk about publishing, books as objects of lust and untapped power of booksellers. I share the microphone with author Jo-Anne Richards and Richard Beynon, and was kindly and charmingly hosted by Bruce Dennill.

The podcast is available here at Bruce Dennill’s podcast channel and can be downloaded as well! (Such wonders of technology.)

There are some ideas in there that I have expanded on elsewhere on my blog:

The Foolishness of Book Jackets

Initially, I thought I could try make an argument for the value of book jackets as a language, as a shorthand that is as useful as it is consistent. As the most perfect visual representation of literature outside of typographical visuals.

And then I did some research and realised that that would be an outrageous lie.

Book jackets are occasionally useful, in the sense that car insurance is: you pay for it all the time, but it turns out to be handy once or twice in your lifetime. Most of the time, it’s money down the drain for a service that is more disappointing than useful. So, you may have heard some of these arguments before, and if you haven’t, then I am glad to be somewhat informative.

I’ve written before about the constant whitewashing of book jackets, with black characters suddenly paling and becoming acceptable to the consumer’s eye, and there is the endless use of sad, skinny girls on YA book covers. Book covers are a language, not just for the consumer but for the bookseller. And like any language, it is prone to miscommunication. It’s easy at first glance to be like “oh, that’s a serious, manly literary tome about life and death and cigarettes” or “that’s obviously chick-lit, it has a lady on the front with her back to us and soft fuzzy colours”. Book jackets are a shorthand and a guide, and are both reflective of their time and their publishers. As such, they can be immensely revealing or completely obtuse.

But how is a jacket made, you may ask? Book jackets fall into two categories: careful and careless. More often than not, the book jacket is designed based on the blurb and maybe an extract. Maybe. Most book jacket designers do not even get to read the book, and end up using stock images rather than crafting a jacket that is informed and enriched by the book’s contents. (You’d be amazed how much this applies even outside of traditional publishing.)

Occasionally, you get a book that has a lovingly-made jacket, and in South Africa, 99% of the time that jacket has been painstakingly crafted by the magnificent Joey Hi-Fi, a man of prodigious talent. If you’ve seen a local book jacket you’ve liked, it was probably done by Joey, whether it is Louis Greenberg, Lauren Beukes, or Imraan Coovadia.

In an interview about his book design process, Joey Hi-Fi said:

My conceptualisation process starts with me reading the novel. I always do this before starting work on a book cover. And in the rare cases that I cannot (for example: the book is still being written or is in a foreign language) I ask for a detailed synopsis and to chat to the author.

I’ve never felt comfortable just working off a brief from the editor or marketing.

Behold, a very small sampling of his artwork:

And glory be to Sir Hi-Fi, because most of the time, we just get this:


Credit: Africa Is A Country

This is from the amazing site Africa Is A Country, about that goddamn acacia tree that is meant to represent all of African literature forever, regardless of the origin of the author or the plot of the novel. Quartz expanded on this, giving the awful truth as to why this happens:

Of course, there are the deeply ingrained problems of post-colonialist and Orientalist attitudes. We’re comfortable with this visual image of Africa because it’s safe. It presents ‘otherness’ in a way that’s easy to understand. That’s ironic, because what is fiction if not a way for you to stretch your empathetic muscles?”

This discussion caused something of a foofaraw in the book industry, just like the genderflip discussion that started earlier this year about how incredibly gendered and awful book jackets are for women’s books. In this long, brilliant and funny essay, YA author Maureen Johnson discusses why women’s books are deemed fluffy or light or breezy, and men’s books aren’t, and how that has something to do with obviously gendered book jackets.

You are informed about a book’s perceived quality through a number of ways. One of those ways is the cover. The cover may be the biggest message-bearer. Other messages include: blurbs (who they are from), comparisons, review coverage, store placement, and categorization.

And the simple fact of the matter is, if you are a female author, you are much more likely to get the package that suggests the book is of a lower perceived quality. Because it’s “girly,” which is somehow inherently different and easier on the palate. A man and a woman can write books about the same subject matter, at the same level of quality,and that woman is simple more likely to get the soft-sell cover with the warm glow and the feeling of smooth jazz blowing off of it.

Johnson then put out a challenge on Twitter to get some genderflipped covers and the internet took up this cause with such gusto that it made me rather happy. Some of the genderflipped examples below: (images link to original source, please go support!)

From The Frisky

From The Frisky

From the Hawkeye Initiative on Tumblr

From the Hawkeye Initiative on Tumblr

On a similar note, The Oatmeal drew Spiderman the same way the new Spider Woman is drawn. It is glorious (and somewhat not safe for work).

Also by The Frisky

Also by The Frisky

We don’t have to have shitty covers that tell us nothing about the book. It shouldn’t be a case of only a bunch of privileged old white guys who get interesting jackets (Franzen, Eugenides, McEwan, Pynchon, etc), or a few very lucky debuts (Edan Lepucki, Erin Morgenstern), but it is. Inappropriate and inadequate book jacket design is the norm, not the exception. And if you think this isn’t important, remember that bad cover design belittles a book.


If you take a look at the cover of Alice Munro’s latest Nobel Prize-winning short fiction collection, The View From Castle Rock, you probably wouldn’t guess it includes stories about cholera, the death of an infant, and domestic abuse. The cover, featuring pink lettering and a neck-down shot of a woman suntanning on a pink towel, suggests it’s a breezy summer read–and not one meant for men. – How Tarted-Up Book Covers Belittle Women’s Fiction

Bad cover design delegates books to the wrong sections, gives them the wrong or no readers and so often puts great books on sale tables, alone and unwanted and left to die next to untold numbers of Dan Brown books. We can’t help but judge books by their cover: we don’t have the opportunity and time to read every goddamn blurb or review. Customers and booksellers judge books by their cover, and we’re basing our purchasing decisions on the rushed work of an underpaid, uninformed and overworked designer. Sure, sometimes the shorthand is useful, but it is so often misleading. Books are an investment of our time, and that decision is so largely influenced by this one thing that it seems hideous to judge someone’s writing by another person’s graphic design.

So no, you don’t get to judge a book by its cover. Booksellers should read a bit more around the book, or at least give it the benefit of the doubt. Customers should flip it open to the first chapter and read the first page. Give the author a chance to convince you, especially when her publisher has failed her through thoughtless jacket design.

The Steampunk Aesthetic and Ideal in Literature and Film: A Primer

How important is steampunk? Is it a literary genre? A film aesthetic? Or just a subculture that has co-opted bits and pieces of Victorian dress and mixed it with a wry twist of sci-fi?

A Young Adult Anthology

The term steampunk is not as old as the literature that inspired it. A term coined in the 1980s as a tounge-in-cheek reference to the rise of cyberpunk, it was originally a shorthand for the work of three authors in the 1980s:  KW Jeter, Tim Powers and James Blaylock. While these authors were the first to consciously use the term, the work that inspired theirs is late Victorian and the rise of steampunk as a cohesive genre began in the 1960s and 70s, solidifying in the 80s. A key example of 1980s steampunk is Elementary BASIC – Learning to Program Your Computer in BASIC with Sherlock Holmes by Henry Singer and Andrew Ledgar. This may have been the first fictional work to co-opt Charles Babbage‘s Analytical Engine in an adventure story: Victorian meshed with the 80s in an educational adventure book.

The first influences of steampunk literature can be found in the scientific romances of Jules Verne, Mary Shelley and HG Wells, the precursors to the now extensive and complicated genre of science fiction. These experimental writers introduced the concepts of an alternative history where steam power had triggered a golden, mechanical age (or sometimes a post-apocalyptic dystopia caused by these wondrous machines). Steam punk is, essentially, a mash of alternative history, futurist thinking and mechanical aesthetic. Some call it speculative fiction, others retro-futuristic, and maybe even straightforward imaginative fantasy. In movies, it is adopted as an aesthetic, mostly as a Rule of Cool, but sometimes as a tidy hand wave to support plots that require certain tech in an age unlikely to have it. It can, however, imbue a movie with the freedom to speculate and create a sandbox for the director to play in.

Steampunk Jewelry

While not as mainstream as many other literary genres (most people probably can’t name a steam punk author as quickly as an American crime writer) it has nonetheless influenced genres outside its own. Consider the area of punk clothing: metal meets lace and cogs meet corsets. There are websites dedicated to such clothing, (Blue Banana, Kate’s Clothing and famously Alchemy Gothic) though it is expensive and often its adherents become adept at making their own clothing.

But most people can recognise steam punk when they see it: movies such as The Prestige, The Golden Compass, Hellboy, Hugo, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events have a clear steampunk aesthetic. I would argue that Twelve Monkeys has an element of steampunk. The first movie to showcase it was Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927, and Terry Gillam’s Brazil in 1985 continued building on the tradition. There’s a blend of steam punk and the wild West, made famous in the movie Wild Wild West, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. It has also been seen recently in Doctor Who season 7 in the episode “A Town Called Mercy”, though only in a relatively minor capacity.

Ultimately, my take on steampunk is that it is more of a tool and aesthetic more than a cohesive way of seeing the world. Steampunk means many things to many people: this article itself was germinated by an argument over whether the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movies could be seen as steampunk. Considering that Arthur Conan Doyle himself wrote some of the seminal scientific romances (the Professor Challenger series), it isn’t too many steps removed to see that Ritchie may have referenced this in the Sherlock Holmes movies in very small aesthetic details. (I still don’t think it is nearly enough to be considered steampunk). But, steampunk can be whatever the author or reader want it to be: like science fiction, it is at heart a speculative genre, and that frees up the author to write in a splendid, challenging fashion. While the fashion can be a bit staid, it can still manifest in jewelery as beautiful as traction farthing pendants and the Nevermore Fob Watch. It is a remarkable genre, though often buried under disdain for the perceived geekiness of it.

Your reading list:

Steampunk – Ann VanderMeer, Jeff VanderMeer
Steampunk II 
Steampunk III
1,000 Steampunk Creations by Grymm and John
Steampunk Gear, Gadgets and Gizmos 
Steampunk! The Bestselling Anthology (Young Adult)
Steampunk Prime by Mike Ashley
The Art of Steampunk by Art Donovan
The Mammoth Book of Steampunk by Sean Wallace
Steampunk Poe by Megan Byrant
Corsets and Clockwork by Trisha Telep
Steampunk Holmes by PC Martin
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Steampunk Version by Zdenko Basic

The State of South African Literature

“Why don’t you stock more local authors? Why can’t I find any South African poetry? Why are there so few black authors?”

These complaints come my way every now and then, and are often brought up at store level. While these are very valid questions, the answer is more complicated (and a little bit sadder) than most booksellers have time to explain.

The book industry, as I’ve discussed before, is ultimately a business with serious overheads and a currently volatile market. More now than ever, publishers are losing their best authors to Amazon, readers are shying away from unusual books and no one wants to take any risks. You only need look at the New York Times bestseller list to see that genre fiction makes up the majority of the bestsellers. For the love of text, the bestselling book this year is that godawful Shades of Vomit tripe. This is further exacerbated in the South African market, which already has a very small book-buying population and is still trying to climb out of a recession. That small market is also likely to own tablets and Kindles, carving that market up even further. And when Amazon sells the same book at a pittance compared to a brick and mortar store with its ridiculous overheads, it makes sense that publishers carefully hedge their bets, and that stores would do the same. After all, rent must be paid and books that sit forever on the shelves end up costing the business. This is one of the many reasons why so many bookstores have closed down.

And unfortunately, publishers are not going to take a chance on a South African author that isn’t an easy sell. Penguin is suing several authors for not producing books that they were paid advances for, and many of these authors are very bankable. If a legacy publisher is losing money on safe bets, then is it really so surprising that a publisher won’t spend the money editing, printing and marketing a collection of African short stories written by a black woman no one has ever heard of?

Ultimately, the publishing industry is much like Hollywood. It likes its leading actors to be white, straight and male (Christian is a bonus) and second it likes white, straight females. While there are definitely gay and lesbian (Stephen Fry, Ellen Degeneres) and black authors (Toni Morrison, Nelson Mandela, Chinua Achebe) who have enjoyed huge literary success, it is still much more difficult for them to break into it than a pretty little white girl who looks good on the back cover. I’ve discussed this issue in terms of black and gay characters, considered risky and likely to hurt sales. And it continues in a cycle of people not buying because the books aren’t there, and the books not being published because there’s a perception that no one wants to buy them.

This is not a new problem in publishing, but I’m not really sure there’s an easy or clear-cut solution. We would have to uproot a lot of social constructs about race and gender before people would be more receptive to a book that isn’t written by someone just like them. One of the many problems with the Man Booker prize is that it is nearly always won by an upper-class white English writer because that’s what the judges are comfortable with.

Irvine Welsh, the author of Trainspotting, lashed out at the “highly imperialist-orientated Man Booker prize”, whose winners have alternated “between largely upper-middle-class English writers and citizens of the former colonies, presumably to stamp legitimacy on this ‘global accolade'”. Speaking at the Edinburgh international writers’ conference , he added that the organisers’ failure to refute accusations of anti-Scottishness, already voiced by Scottish writers such as Alan Bissett, was a sign of “arrogance” and “intellectual enfeeblement”. Welsh, who is famous for using Scottish dialect in his novels, said: “The Booker prize’s contention to be an inclusive, non-discriminatory award could be demolished by anybody with even a rudimentary grasp of sixth-form sociology.” The award, he said, was “based on the conceit that upper-class Englishness is the cultural yardstick against which all literature must be measured”.

That’s one example of where prejudice can give a book an unfair advantage over other, often better books.

So, perhaps what might be done is that South African book prizes go to authors who actually deserve it rather than the safe bets. Some publishers have local imprints that are supposed to service South African authors; perhaps skimping on print quality to get cheaper books into more hands might be better. How about putting more South African books in the school syllabus instead of Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice? (Although Cry The Beloved Country is an awful, condescending litany of racist tripe, it probably has a valid place in the school syllabus.) I really think that South Africa is home to enough legacy publishers with good teams to give local authors good opportunities, and there definitely needs to be more publishing in done in languages other than English and Afrikaans. In fact, I’ll tackle the potential answers in another, lengthier blog post. I’d love to hear what you think about what is happening on the South African literature scene, and what can be done to improve it.

The Unfair Crucifixion of Salman Rushdie

I have discussed the issue of banned books before, and while it is a terribly subjective thing to ban a book, it is also mostly a misguided thing. One of the prime examples of an unnecessarily banned book is Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, a book banned in several countries for challenging core Islamic beliefs. This book is now back in the spotlight after four authors were asked to leave the Jaipur Literary Festival because they read extracts from Satanic Verses. The advisors suggested that they leave because they faced arrest for reading from a banned book during a festival celebrating Indian and international literature.

This is where it gets messy, and where I am willing to wade in because I have no sacred cows. A literary festival should be a celebration of literature beyond borders and comfort zones. As someone who does not subscribe to a religion, and hasn’t since the age of twelve, I find it ridiculous to ban a book simply because it does not agree with what someone considers sacrosanct to their imaginary BFF. I think most people haven’t read Satanic Verses, and the fact that many Christians called for Rushdie’s death in 1998 without any kind of context other than “everyone else is doing it” shows the vast misunderstanding going on here. Satanic Verses deals with more than just the supposed verses in the Koran attributed to Muhammad’s short time being influenced by pagan influences. Because these verses stand contrary to the rest of the teachings, they have been labelled the Satanic verses to explain them away. Convenient, but flimsy.

Anyway, that aside, Satanic Verses deals with the scope of life and death, Bollywood films, utterly destructive love and romance (the mother pushing her children out of a building and following them), sin and lust and climbing Everest. It is a work broad in its material and eloquent in its execution and about so much more than just a few misguided verses. To mark this book as unfit and unacceptable just because a few people are offended is an insult to those of us who don’t share the same belief systems. I do not appreciate any group making decisions for others; I especially find those decisions distasteful when based on belief systems rather than tangible objections. Censorship is an ugly thing as it is; we saw the fallout over SOPA/PIPA last week, especially with the arrests of the founders of Whether it is coming from multinationals or churches or governments, censorship is nearly always incorrectly applied.

I’d like to share another example; please bear with me for this slight segue. With the furore over the reprinting of Mein Kampf in Germany, we see that minorities have just as much sway as majorities as getting a book banned or a show pulled. I understand that many Jewish groups might not want to see Mein Kampf being sold on shelves, but would it not be better if it could be annotated and challenged by historians in a public setting? It might go towards explaining the horror of the Holocaust, and how a nation was able to condone it in a variety of ways. (Hitler’s Willing Executioners deals with this in better detail than I can manage  here.) Suppose that publically challenging and understanding Mein Kampf could bring closure to that dark period in history? Just as we in South Africa should try read the materials, however uncomfortable, of the TRC hearings, of the writings of the racist forerunners in our attempts to understand and therefore make peace, surely the German people should be given the opportunity to do the same?

Which brings me back to Rushdie. When he challenged a set of ideals (and not even with particular vitriol, I feel), he was using his art to lay out a set of discussions. Telling him that he should be beheaded for raising an opinion is as backwards as it is saddening. I don’t care that the book stood on some toes; if we cannot even raise objections in fiction, how are we to do them elsewhere? And how dare a country tell its authors what to do, and exile them if they don’t toe the line? This is much bigger than critical objection; this is censorship and totalitarianism in its most subversive form. How can India ever claim to be a world player when religions can dictate to its policy? PEN, the international organisation working for the most important rights of writers, has this to say about the threats to Salman Rushdie’s life:

PEN International is appalled to learn that the author Salman Rushdie has once again been the subject of a death threat; we condemn this criminal attempt to silence an international exponent of free speech.

Read more here

I feel that this best approaches my feeling on the subject. India should protect its citizens, and not allow religious groups to drive them into hiding in other countries. Just as it is South Africa’s duty to protect Zapiro from fatwa, it is up to India to do the same. But India’s failure to do so speaks to a government held ransom by the religious, and especially by the worst example of a particular group of people. A lot of people associate any criticism of Islam with racism, a defence as facile as it is insulting. My condemnation of Islamic religious leaders has nothing to do with Muslims, whatever my disagreements with their chosen beliefs. As a writer, as a bookseller, as a citizen, I cannot tolerate the destruction of free speech even if it is not in my home country. Salman Rushdie is not the first to suffer for his views; Jyllands-Posten for the Muhammad cartoons, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the bombed offices of French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, our own Zapiro; all of them have been attacked for their views. And anyone who agrees with them is labelled racist in the most childish defense possible.

By all means, let there be responses. But those responses should not involve death threats and exile. They should especially not include governments siding with one vocal group at the expense of that country’s growth and integrity.

The Price of Books

Everyone loves to complain about the price of things without really thinking about what it costs to make it happen. How can a book cost R200, wails the consumer (nearly always while spending the same amount on silly cocktails).  How dare the bookstore charge this! How disgusting, knowledge and stories should be free to all!

This happens to me at so many dinner parties and similar arbitrary gatherings that I thought it would be best to set my thoughts down once and for all on the matter. I am tired of people complaining about how their latest copy of some tawdry romance cost them more than a meal, and then focusing that petty anger on me as some convenient representative of the book industry as a whole. I know I’m not the only one to get it in the neck; book reps get asked why the covers are so shit (and therefore drastically reducing the book’s chances of success) and store managers get scolded for painting the store the wrong colour. (I shit you not, this has happened.)

So, this is a handy guide to why books cost what they do, and why one should be grateful they don’t cost more.

The Birth of the Book

Of course, books don’t fall from the sky into the laps of publishers. First, a story must be written. Once that’s been done (in anything from six months to ten years), it gets picked up by a literary agent and/or a publishing house. If the book is pitched at a major book fair, there may be an auction for it. Sometimes these auctions run into 6-figure sums. A page hasn’t been printed and the publisher is already in debt. Usually though, the manuscript is selected and the author is usually paid an advance, and will get royalties once the money spent on the book’s production has been paid back. This seems to average around $15,000, but it can go much higher. Or lower. If the author is a megastar, then they draw a regular salary that needs to be paid. Ultimately, publishing companies need to charge just for the text to defray publishing costs.

This is just for raw product; words on paper. The words then need to be edited, covers must be designed and galleys must be printed. Now there are more people involved, and who need to be paid for their services. Marketing must be done. PR must be paid. Printing must begin! The price of printing books doubled last year, by the way. My contacts at Penguin tell me that an average-length book averages about R60 just to print and bind. It was R30 in 2009. A print run can be anything between 500 to 5 million copies. The opening print run of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was 750,000 copies, for example. Victor: My Journey has a print run of 34,000 copies. And that’s just for a rugby biography. And if the book has colour, then that price is going to double. This is why cookbooks are so expensive.

Now the book, and all its attendant finery of flyers, decals and posters, is ready to go. This is just a top-list book, never mind mid and bottom list books that don’t even get flyers. Ag shame.

Oh, the places this book will go!

 Unless the book is locally produced either by a local publishing house or a local arm of one of the Big Six, it must travel here. Now, the only books that get air-freighted to meet worldwide release dates are books like Harry Potter. Otherwise, everything is shipped to South Africa over the course of several weeks. This is why we always get books late. But before they can even get on a boat here, those books have to be paid for somewhere. The publishers pay to have them printed and shipped; this gets worked into the price that distributors buy them for. And, you guessed it; those prices are negotiated according to the exchange rate. So, if the Rand has been somewhat slapped about by the big boy currencies, then those books aren’t coming in cheap. Since we get about 60% of our books from the UK, we have to trade in the almighty Sterling. Yay.

And that’s before they’ve even gotten to our shores and airports. Our friends at Customs continue to slap an import tax on the books. You know, as punishment for bringing them here and the audacity of teaching children to read. (This is partly why textbooks are so expensive.) From the ports, those books go to warehouses by truck. Add on transport fees, and then feel free to work out how much it costs to get thousands of books all over the country, including hellholes like Kimberly. (On a sidenote, apparently Kimberly is the only place that could sell its stock of that awful Jock of the Bushveld gaffe.) If the price of petrol has gone up like the hemline of a teenage girl’s miniskirt, then add that onto the price too.

Adoption and Home

Finally! The book has arrived at the store after birth and travel. The boxes are opened, the booksellers reverently arrange the bestsellers at the front of the store in the hopes of snaring in customers. The ones with pretty covers glisten in the windows, and the big names are piled high. But the floors and tables don’t come cheap.

Rent has becoming an increasingly bigger nightmare for all store owners, but few get hit worse than stores with lots of shopliftable product and cheap-ass customers who will read an entire book and then leave it behind. Rent inJohannesburg, for example, averages between R700 to R1000 a square metre in the big shopping centres. When you extrapolate the size of your favourite bookstore, and start factoring in rent, it starts to look a bit more sensible. Now that the book has come to its first temporary home, its shelter costs a fair bit. Electricity, staff pay, music licences (it is illegal to play music without a licence from SAMA), stock purchases, banking fees with each credit card swipe, theft and insurance are all built into that price. Add to this the plastic bags that keep your book safe until it gets home. What about general upkeep and maintenance? Then there are book launches, where people often drink and eat free without buying a single book to ease off some of the costs.

So, when you pay for that book, you are paying the author, the publishers, the printers, the transport companies, the South African government for customs and VAT, the bookstore’s rent, Eskom, the banks, the salaries of the people that work there AND for the thoughtlessness of those who thieve books each and every day.

Suddenly, R180 for a novel doesn’t seem quite so outrageous, does it?

This is Your Revolutionary Reading

Today, South African media is taking to the streets to protest the battering-ram speed of the Secrecy Bill being pushed through. In my heart, I want to believe that this will get stomped on by the Constitutional Court but it seems far too audacious to hope for that much right now. At the least, we can be sure that alternative media and the Internet will continue to be sources of information, and there’s too much traction against this for it to go forward. Compared to the apartheid era, with a mostly compliant white population and a completely disenfranchised black population, this Bill will have to go up against ten of millions of South Africans with voices. I hope that it will be enough.

It makes me think about books that are influential to this kind of mood. Besides the obvious 1984 by Orwell, there are hundreds of titles dealing with revolution, history and protest. Below are some of my favourites:

One No, Many Yeses, by Paul Kingsnorth

A manifesto, an investigation, a travel book: an introduction to the new politics of resistance which shows there’s much more to the anti-globalisation movement than trashing Starbucks. It could turn out to be the biggest political movement of the twenty-first century: a global coalition of millions, united in resisting an out-of-control global economy, and already building alternatives to it. It emerged in Mexico in 1994, when the Zapatista rebels rose up in defiance of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The West first noticed it in Seattle in 1999, when the World Trade Organisation was stopped in its tracks by 50,000 protesters. Since then, it has flowered all over the world, every month of every year. The ‘anti-capitalist’ street protests we see in the media are only the tip of its iceberg. It aims to shake the foundations of the global economy, and change the course of history. But what exactly is it? Who is involved, what do they want, and how do they aim to get it? To find out, Paul Kingsnorth travelled across four continents to visit some of the epicentres of the movement. In the process, he was tear-gassed on the streets of Genoa, painted anti-WTO puppets in Johannesburg, met a tribal guerrilla with supernatural powers, took a hot bath in Arizona with a pie-throwing anarchist and infiltrated the world’s biggest gold mine in New Guinea. Along the way, he found a new political movement and a new political idea. Not socialism, not capitalism, not any ‘ism’ at all, it is united in what it opposes, and deliberately diverse in what it wants instead — a politics of ‘one no, many yeses’. This movement may yet change the world. This book tells its story.

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

In short, V, the eponymous character, sets out to cripple and destroy the government of his day. Voted in by a terrified public after a nuclear war, the fascist Norsefire runs the country in an ongoing battle against anyone who isn’t white, heterosexual, Christian and obedient to the invasive machine. With the Eye, Ear, Mouth, Nose and Finger working as branches of the government in the constant surveliiance and abuse of the citizens, V begins his vendetta against the people who started this terrible regime. Along the way he rescues Evey, and she becomes complicit in his work. An orphan who has been battered by the regime, she becomes more than just V’s stray; she becomes instrumental.

Fight Club by Chuck Paulahnuik

You are not your bank account, and you are not who you tell yourself you are.



Take it Personally: How Globalisation Affects You by Anita Roddick

An extraordinary book from outspoken business leader Anita Roddick that brings together some of the most prominent of authorities on globalisation (including Susan George, David Korten and Naomi Klein), taking a hard-hitting look at the myths and reality behind this phenomenon that affects us all, and showing us how we can all fight it. Some of the leading names in the globalisation debate have contributed to the book, including Naomi Klein, Susan George and David Korten, as well as organisations and charities such as the Rainforest Action Network.

The book deals with a diverse range of the issues surrounding globalisation, including human rights, the environment, international trade and finance, health, the food we eat and the clothes we wear.

‘Globalisation is the most important change in the history of humankind, and the latest name for the conspiracy of the rich against the poor. It is the phenomenon most subject to the efforts of economists and statisticians, and the least understood and measured change in our time.’ Anita Roddick

Toxic Sludge is Good For You by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton

Toxic Sludge is Good for You explains exactly how the magic of modern PR transforms the favoured policies of the rich and the powerful into uncontroversial common sense. It is without doubt the most important book about the methods and objectives of corporate public relations ever published. Reading it will make life for the executives at Hill and Knowlton, Ketchum and Barston-Marstellar a little bit more difficult. And that can only be a good thing.

Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein

Around the world in Britain, the United States, Asia and the Middle East, there are people with power who are cashing in on chaos; exploiting bloodshed and catastrophe to brutally remake our world in their image. They are the shock doctors. Thrilling and revelatory, The Shock Doctrine cracks open the secret history of our era. Exposing these global profiteers, Naomi Klein discovered information and connections that shocked even her about how comprehensively the shock doctors’ beliefs now dominate our world – and how this domination has been achieved. Raking in billions out of the tsunami, plundering Russia, exploiting Iraq – this is the chilling tale of how a few are making a killing while more are getting killed.

Media Control by Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky’s backpocket classic on wartime propaganda and opinion control begins by asserting two models of democracy—one in which the public actively participates, and one in which the public is manipulated and controlled. According to Chomsky, “propaganda is to democracy as the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state,” and the mass media is the primary vehicle for delivering propaganda in the United States. From an examination of how Woodrow Wilson’s Creel Commission “succeeded, within six months, in turning a pacifist population into a hysterical, war-mongering population,” to Bush Sr.’s war on Iraq, Chomsky examines how the mass media and public relations industries have been used as propaganda to generate public support for going to war. Chomsky further touches on how the modern public relations industry has been influenced by Walter Lippmann’s theory of “spectator democracy,” in which the public is seen as a “bewildered herd” that needs to be directed, not empowered; and how the public relations industry in the United States focuses on “controlling the public mind,” and not on informing it. Media Control is an invaluable primer on the secret workings of disinformation in democratic societies.

New Rulers of the World by John Pilger

John Pilger is one of the world’s most renowned investigative journalists and documentary film-makers. In this fully updated collection, he reveals the secrets and illusions of modern imperialism. Beginning with Indonesia, he shows how General Suharto’s bloody seizure of power in the 1960s was part of a western design to impose a ‘global economy’ on Asia. A million Indonesians died as the price for being the World Bank’s ‘model pupil’. Ina shocking chapter on Iraq, he allows us to understand the true nature of the West’s war against the people of that country. And he dissects, piece by piece, the propaganda of the ‘war on terror’ to expose its Orwellian truth. Finally, he looks behind the picture postcard of his homeland, Australia, to illuminate an enduring legacy of imperialism, the subjugation on the First Australians.

The Silent State by Heather Brooke

Award-winning investigative journalist Heather Brooke exposes the shocking and farcical lack of transparency at all levels of government. At a time when the State knows more than ever about us, Brooke argues that without proper access to the information that citizens pay for, Britain can never be a true democracy. Silent State is a groundbreaking and important book, which should be read by anyone who wants to know how Britain really works.

Confessions of An Economic Hitman by John Perkins

As an Economic Hitman (EHM), John Perkins helped further American imperial interests in countries such as Ecuador, Panama, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. As Chief Economist for the international consulting firm Chas. T. Main, he convinced underdeveloped countries to accept massive loans for infrastructure development and ensured that the projects were contracted to multinational corporations. The countries acquired enormous debt, and the US and international aid agencies were able to control their economies.

He tried to write this book four times but was threatened or bribed each time to halt. The events of 9/11 – a direct result of the activities of EHMs in the 1970s – finally forced him to confront the role he played himself, and to reveal the truth to the rest of the world.

Counterpower by Tim Gee

No major campaign has ever been successful without Counterpower – the power that the ‘have-nots’ can use to remove the power of the ‘haves’. This is examined by investigating the history and tactics of the suffrage movement, the labour movement, the anti-war movement, the anti-colonial movement, the environmental movement and today’s human rights and anti-globalisation movement. In the context of the financial crisis and the threat of climate change, engagement in system critical social movements is on the increase. This unique book demystifies the power dynamics of social change.

Banned Book Week

Censorship says more about the people that ban the books than the authors that wrote them. According to the American Library Association, challenges are recorded and tallied, and they have provided us with a fascinating list of the top ten books that have been removed from libraries over the last ten years. While many of the titles are perenially banned and unbanned (Huckleberry Finn, The Colour Purple, The Catcher in The Rye) I am always surprised at which books do get labelled as foul and disgusting and all sorts of colourful pejoratives.

Amongst these titles, there some I would censure only for their terrible writing,

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

like Twilight and Gossip Girl, but I wouldn’t demand they be pulled from shelves. I don’t think that all young girls will look to the main female characters in such books and think “I wish I could be vapid and loved only for how I look!”, and I know many sensible and clever teens who see Twilight for what it is, and isn’t. What it definitely isn’t is subversive. As I have mentioned before, it is so dreadfully, boringly mainstream. How it gets lumped in the same category as Catcher in the Rye escapes me. As far as subversive goes, I’d rather push for Fight Club (actually, anything by Paulahniuk).

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Of course, some books will get banned just because they aren’t white enough, not complying to the status quo of ‘white people know and do best’: worth noting in this category are titles like Beloved (One of my personal top 10 favourites) and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.  I am surprised that Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses isn’t on that list, though I still believe it is his finest work and one of the best ever produced for its vast storytelling ability and brilliant handling of issues so mutli-faceted as to resemble a prism in a sunburst. Unfortunately, too many people think its evil and anti-Islam, an argument that is as specious as it is insulting. And, sadly, always offered by people who haven’t read the book. But I take hope in the fact that books by leading atheists and scientists are not on that list either. To be fair though, the ALA offers this disclaimer:

A challenge is defined as a formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness. The number of challenges reflects only incidents reported. We estimate that for every reported challenge, four or five remain unreported. Therefore, we do not claim comprehensiveness in recording challenges.

I suspect this is why a great deal of truly controversial books are not on their list.

The Female Eunuch

I still believe in students, especially this one, who is running an illegal library out of her locker to counter the draconian rules of her school. (If she were my daughter, I would consider myself the most successful parent possible.) I truly believe that there are so many kids out there desperate for knowledge and stories, and as long as ill-informed teachers and librarians hide away great books, they will not have access to literature that challenges the status quo. I have always believed in the power of books to change and grow minds, and books have always been my teachers. And sometimes banning a book does great things for its power. Consider the popularity of Germaine Greer’s wonderful Female Eunuch, a book so infamous in its heyday that women had to buy it in brown paper bags under the counter. (That was 1970. Really not that long ago, when you think about it.)


Unfortunately not everyone can get around bans, so I would prefer they didn’t happen. And it could be said that books like Mein Kampf should be banned lest they influence further evil, but by being able to analyse what motivated such a crazy, evil man, we might better understand what caused his rise and rise. Also, once we start banning two or three books, it isn’t long before anything remotely objectionable gets banned. Sitting on this side of dead apartheid, book banning has a particularly ugly (and darkly amusing) history here. Considering  it was a system so ridiculous as to ban Black Beauty based on the title as well as the delightful Monty Python’s Life of Brian, it is a neat insight into some the things the apartheid government feared most: black people and religious irreverence. And perhaps really big horses.