Bookstore browsing

 

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.

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6 Responses to “Bookstore browsing”

  1. Or perhaps there is an even easier explanation: consumers do not wish to read about Africa. Bookstores are not going to provide a product there is no demand for. And fact of the matter is, there is simply not a popular demand for books explaining the situation in the DRC.

    Part of this is simply a problem of frame of reference- most Americans (or Aussies) know enough about the basic facts of World War II to be able to pick up a book on the subject and understand what is being said. Most of these same people will have trouble differenating between the Republic of Congo and the Democratic republic of Congo on a map. On the same token, I do not think there are many Aussies (and certianly no Americans) who believe that Lumbaba has had as great of an affect on their world as Lincoln has.

    Either way, it is a tad unfair to blame the intellistigia for this one. If consumers don’t want it, producers won’t make it.

  2. Thank you for the comments. Unfortunately, I think this is quite a complex problem. It is true that consumer interest in African issues is low and that there is little popular demand. But we can’t really leave it at that, meaning that it’s OK for people not to learn about the world’s deadliest conflict of our times. I think the academia does have to bear considerable responsibility for this kind of situation, precisely because (and I know this is naïve) they are supposed to be the objective keepers of reality.

    Having said that, there is a complex web of influences that affect the work of academia, including government funding, consciousness of book sales, media interest, and the environment in which academics are raised (nationalism/patriotism is key here). I have covered this issue in more detail in the chapter on the academia in my book (Stealth Conflicts).

    Importantly here, popular interest is not a given or fixed thing. It is very much shaped, by policymakers, by the media, and over the long term by academics and educators. Who in USA or Australia knew or cared about Vietnam before policymakers in the USA decided it was important? Somalia was a virtually unknown country before the USA decided to intervene. Then the media was all over it, constructing a large three-storey media centre in Mogadishu, and popular interest was created. If academia teaches what is happening in Africa, the seeds of interest will be sown, the media and policymakers will be questioned, and popular interest created.

    And this does not mean simply treating Africa as a charity case. Africa has considerable geopolitical signifiance for the Western world, of which the powers-that-be are well aware. Oil in the Gulf of Guinea is certainly seen as important to the West, and coltan mines in Australia are closing down because of the cheap coltan coming out of the DRC (extracted at low cost because of the terrible working conditions of the miners).

    In the end it turns out to be a bit of a chicken or the egg kind of scenario. The media and academics respond to a conflict somewhere because they foresee popular interest, but they are also key in shaping that popular interest. Getting a more balanced view of the world means alleviating some of the myopic nationalism/patriotism that plagues our world. I think this work has to start from the ‘objective keepers of reality’.

  3. “If consumers don’t want it, producers won’t make it.”

    I’m afraid T. Greer appears to suffer that unwholesome and entirely manufactured view of “the free market” as it is applied to the publication industry. The fact is, as we have come to observe recently, that media organs and their various agents and proxies are fully capable of dictating demand for particular kinds of product, and of suppressing information in a variegated spectrum of knowledge regimes.

    It’s likely that many Americans, Aussies, Brits, and other western audiences would be fascinated to learn more of American and British corporate support for Nazi Germany during the 1930’s. Or of American corporate and political collusion with the Soviet Union during the Vietnam War (see Anthony Sutton); reports of American pilots seeing what they described as “Ford trucks” coming off Soviet ships and ordered not to attack an obvious military shipment. Ford had several plants operating in the USSR at the time, producing equipment for the Soviet arsenal. Fascinating stuff to be sure, but why is such information difficult to find? Because it doesn’t “fit” the cherished narrative of the United States. And when something doesn’t fit, it doesn’t fit in many other ways, as well.

    In short, market demand is mostly artificially created by those selling the relevant material rather than by an evolution of some imagined organic consumer demand. Demand is manufactured, nurtured, brought to flower by those seeking profit from it. It seems there is little desire to make a profit from telling some uncomfortable truths about, not only Africa, but many other places as well.

  4. Thanks for the comments, Ken. By coincidence, I have just finished writing a blog entry on this subject which I am just about to post!

  5. I work at Dymocks. Most publishing houses let bookstores return unsold books with a full refund if they’re returned between 3 to 12 months of publication. Stores therefore do not stocks books that are older than a year, unless of course they are good sellers because they eventually have to be sold in the store and cannot be returned. Therefore, the books stocked are determined by what is being written, which is determined by what is being published, which is determined by what sells.

  6. bookstore…

    Your topic Epoch Bookstore | Ron Larry- Guttermost to Uttermost was interesting when I found it on Saturday searching for bookstore…

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