I recently spent a considerable amount of time in a number of large bookstores in and around Sydney, Australia. I knew I was expecting too much, but I hoped I might be able to find a few books that would help me learn more about the state of conflict in the world and foreign affairs in general. Instead the exercise turned into another opportunity to learn just how far detached from reality our perspective of the world is.
The political sections of the bookstores I visited reflected an obsession with the issue of terrorism (but only the variety of terrorism that is seen as affecting the West, of course), and with US politics. In terms of the quantity of books, the history sections reflected a similar rather extreme Western-centric perspective. Accounts and analysis of the world’s deadliest conflicts of our time were virtually nowhere to be found, and the African continent was consistently marginalized. Furthermore, considering that in the African history section, so many of the books were either the personal memoirs of white people in Africa (The White Masai, Back from Africa and I dreamed of Africa, for example), the accounts of Western journalists, or the exploits of the Western explorers who ‘discovered’ Africa), there was precious little at all about the modern history of the African continent in any of the bookstores visited.
Here is just a taste of what I found in these bookstores:
In one Borders store, I found 3.5 shelves of books on African history. In the same store, I found 12 shelves on Middle Eastern history, 10 shelves on US history, and 9 shelves on UK history. Western military history was also a major section, with 4 shelves devoted to World War I, 11 shelves to World War II, and 3 shelves to the Vietnam War. That is, there is more information available in this bookstore on World War I alone than there is on the entire history of the African continent. It is also interesting to note that in addition to the large section on World War II, there was a section specifically set aside for the Holocaust – 2 shelves were devoted to books on this subject.
In one Dymocks store, 1.5 shelves were devoted to African history. In comparison, a section devoted specifically to Nazi Germany was given 4 shelves. The subject of Western military history was treated with particular importance in this store, with 4 shelves for World War I, 8 shelves for World War II, 8 shelves for Australian military, 8 more for military affairs in general, 4 shelves on weaponry, and 4 more shelves on the SAS. That is, this bookstore stocks twice as many books on the issue of Special Forces in the military than it does on the entire history of the African continent. The same store stocked more books on the Napoleonic Wars (14) than it did on all of Africa’s conflicts combined (12, including 3 books on Darfur and 3 on Rwanda). In another Dymocks store, there were more books in the Jewish history section than there were on the African history section (that’s before even looking at the Middle East history section).
Among Sydney’s bookstores, Abbey’s bookstore has probably the largest collection of history books, but the trends here were equally disturbing. I found less than 3 shelves on African history. A number of single Western countries each easily outclassed the number of books on Africa here, with 10 shelves on modern Britain alone (that’s apart from the 2 shelves on modern Ireland, Scotland and Wales), and 4 shelves each on modern France, modern Germany and modern Russia. Modern North America was given 12 shelves and the Middle East was given 6 shelves. Interestingly, in the rather limited Africa section, there was more than double the number of books (7) on the crisis in Darfur than those on Zaire/DRC (3, one of which was largely the account of a single person, rather than a history). This is despite the fact that the conflict in Darfur is far smaller in scale and broke out much later than conflict in Zaire/DRC.
Is this all the fault of the academics and writers who, heavily influenced by their Western-centric environment, are simply not writing on subjects that are seen from that perspective as being unimportant, however large in scale or geopolitically significant? Or is it the fault of the publishers and the bookstores which, in chasing sales, are not willing to venture outside the ‘established’ Western-centric perspectives of the world? Whatever the case, with the world’s deadliest conflicts marginalized in the media, in the education system and in the bookstores, the general public really stand little chance of seeing any semblance of balance in the world around them.