Sunday, June 19, 2011

Some "pasaway" and subversive thoughts about a book.

Dr Jose Rizal died so that people can read books!
One of John Steinbeck's less known essays but perhaps the most remarkable is the one entitled "Some Random and Randy Thoughts about Books" which came out in his collection of Americana essays in "America and Americans". The prescient Steinbeck foresaw a day where there would be no reason why there should be books but he bravely predicted that there will still be books. This was the subject of my 2007 blog post on books and libraries being obsolete.

Steinbeck who lived through the Depression, World War II and pre and post war totalitarianism as a reporter knew that books are the most subversive but magical thing our species has ever created. In fact he writes that in these oppressed countries, people don't ask for food first (since dictators make sure no one is hungry at first) but books. "A book is somewhat sacred" Steinbeck writes, because they invariably TELL THE TRUTH. People will distrust the networks and the newspapers since these can be a fount of lies and so has little authority. But books carry authority. And so people have been known to die for a book and people have been known to fight for books! Any prior restraint on a book is fought to the bitter end (and to victory as a matter of course)! Even Hitler's odious "Mein Kampf" should be available since it can still serve for good ends like spreading the message of tolerance (even if there are some requirements) for to ban it is to do exactly what the Nazis believed was right!

Anyway I write this blog post since a publisher wrote me an email to say that his donation of books to the University of the Philippines Library has not yet been processed and the publisher alleges it is taking a long time for the library to put the book on the shelves since someone higher up is not thrilled with the book. Now I wouldn't take much note to this but the reason why the publisher wrote me is that I wrote a positive review of the book here. And of course my name was mentioned in correspondences with the university higher ups. I don't mind but being a Darwinist, I am a captive market for iconoclastic books, even if I don't particularly agree with their contents. I am willing even to spend a small fortune for these.  For example, I was first in line at the university union bookshop for Richard Dawkins' "God Delusion". This shows the fact that even how unpalatable, offensive or unflattering a book is, there should be a chance for anyone to read it. (but not necessarily to buy it! And that is why we have libraries where we can borrow books!)

In this book brouhaha at UP, it was alleged that someone in the university is blocking the availability of the book at the library. It is no secret that this book is extremely critical with some major reforms in the curriculum and the "academic entrepreneurship" ideological direction of the university. But any initiative invites reasonable criticism and any criticism requires a reasoned rebuttal. So if a book is extremely critical of the something or someone, then someone who is a fan should write a convincing rebuttal in the form of another book.

And that exactly is what the ex Anglican cleric, Catholic convert and now Catholic beato John Henry Cardinal Newman did. Several withering articles came out in the London papers about the sincerity of his conversion to Roman Catholicism. The intellectually astute Newman who clearly understood that a book has infiintely more authority than a blurb op ed, wrote his "Apologia Pro Vita Sua" which today ranks with St Augustine's "Confessions" as the best spiritual autobiographies ever written.

In no way did Newman sue his critics with libel. Newman never believed in banning books even if the Church had an Index Librorum Prohibitum at the time. Pope Paul VI and the Second Vatican Council rightfully made that index history. The Church no longer proscribes books but does warn Catholics that a book may be damaging to a Catholic's faith! If a Catholic reads a "dangerous" book and has problems with it, then he/she should talk to his/her priest.

However in a university such as UP, we don't have priests or bishops telling us that a book is "dangerous reading". Final decisions on books should be done by readers alone and be extension, the reading public. The faculty may recommend books to read but can never proscribe the reading of these books. The only decent thing anyone can do is to write a scathing review (which we hope will dissuade readers from reading the book!). If UP's professors taught their students well, then they can rest assured that their students have been taught well enough to know what is good reading or not.

Not even university collegiality may even be invoked without damaging academic freedom to proscribe a book so that it does not occupy shelf space in the library, especially if there are readers who want to read it. The American Library Association has a Library Bill of Rights which challenges prior restraint on the availability of books. A library should be the one to go ballistic.

And so allegations that a certain book is being given some prior restraint at the university should be viewed with concern. This means that the level of intellectual debate and dissent at the University of the Philippines is certainly approaching the event horizon beyond which they fall into a black hole! And given recent issues on the grant of tenure to some assistant professors, many are not surprised!

After all Jose Rizal, whose 150th birthday is marked today, died because of two books. Thus the best tribute we can give the good physician is to ensure any book can be read!

No comments: