Fahrenheit 2009: Chinese Checkers

Chinese checkers

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Entrance to the Chinese hall at the Frankfurt Book Fair

Digital content creation is not the only elephant being talked about at the Frankfurt Book Fair. The other was guest of honor China. But the conversation is lopsided.  China has its own room near the entrance with a delightfully meditative installation, a pond nestled in white sand with the big logo of ideograms carved into wooden blocks.  One company has a line of small laptops all showing pages with gaudy pictures and Chinese texts. A young woman, extremely young for my tired old eyes, comes up to me without bidding. We speak a mixture of German and English. It seems to me they are looking for content. They buy copyrights. “Thrillers?” I ask. Yes, yes, people like thrillers in China. And it is a huge market, I muse. Yes, she says, a big market. Something to note, a huge and eager market…. Maybe finishing that thriller I started 5 years ago might be a good idea. Maybe there are better things to do…

China-01

 

Metamorphosis
Is this the same China that pumped out all those manifestoes on poor paper just a few decades ago? The country where everyone wore blue jackets and rode bicycles? The nation of great leaps forward and cultural revolutions with millions of deaths? Tiananmen Square?  I cannot recall regime change, but everyone can go there, one airline is offering special discounts: € 499. And the business sector is in awe, even freedom-loving Jack Welch. Arte is blasting a program on Chinese writers, a young authoress talks about the country being a China Town, no longer in touch with its tradition. The ubiquitous books revering its economic energy are beginning to feel like a waste of trees. A week earlier, Nelson Schwartz and Matthew Saltmarsh from the New York Times were decrying some mysterious illness called “Eurosclerosis,” Europe’s somewhat plodding economy, and noting one should speak of a G-2,  the United States and China. “Ideally, it would be the G-3, but Europe doesn’t speak with a single voice and they can’t coordinate and function the same way the U.S. and China can,” the authors quote C. Fred Bergsten, director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. But these two distinguished, oft-published journalists apparently have not noticed the human costs of the boom. It seems unimportant in Mammon’s great maw.

Human matters
For a dissenting view, you have to march all the way to the cubbyhole booths in Hall 3.0 and 3.1, for example.  lr-China-Charter08 Regina Berlinghof, IT specialist by day, authoress and publisher of ancient spiritual and lyrical texts for YinYang Media by night, has hung texts of the Charter 08, a free speech manifesto for the people and artists of China. “Human rights are not given by the state,” one page states boldly, “rather, they are rights that each individual possesses at birth.” At birth is an interesting concept. And possession, too. Possessions are eminently fragile. They can be bought, taken, or even embezzled away. “A Chinese couple came by and nodded approvingly,” she points out. “You are the only one who actually stopped to find out more. Other journalists came by, but they didn’t take notice,” she points out sadly. We eat a few macadamia nuts and talk of the great Chinese thinkers, the artists, they are always the true value of a nation. And behind its army of bureaucrats, China has a grand culture that stretches back to the days of Gog and Magog. Alas, it has no clout.

One storey higher, I find Amnesty International with a big yellow poster announcing a round table about dissident writer Liao Yiwu (his “Public-Toilet Managerwill brighten your day, no doubt), who was not allowed to travel. The event is also being organized by the S. Fischer publishing house, a big one in Germany, but the print is small. Fischer brought out a complete collection of books on the Nazi concentration camps a while ago, so they know what they are talking about.

Not far is a tiny stand with a single book on display called Laogai, from agenda Verlag & Gallerie. It has a picture of men in police uniform pointing guns. Laogai, which derives from the word for reeducation camps. A concentration camp. (Laogai…. Sounds spookily similar to Lager, and shares three letters with Gulag). I open it, a sentence springs up at me: 68 non-violent crimes are punishable by death in China, one of them tax evasion. I turn a page, gruesome pictures of executions, in the background are white vans, presumably – says the caption – mobile labs to harvest the fresh organs. Dr. Bernhard Schneeberger has a good sense of humor, but here his demeanor is filled with anger: That is what you get when you combine hard-nosed capitalism with hard-line communism, he says.

lr-laogai-01Six Sigma meets the Gulag, essentially. China’s motto at the fair is “Tradition and Innovation,” (two buzz-terms used ad nauseam by anyone from distinguished watch makers to tourist offices around the world). Traditional law meets innovative means to mete it out and profit. The law of supply and demand applied to human beings, who are in large supply in China, and always have been; the supply always a little larger than demand, so it is cheap. Organ harvesting at the killing field, a case for just-in-time delivery. A literal understanding of the term human resources. The result: fantastic growth. Great idea for Europe’s sclerotic economy, Mr. Schwartz, no? It was tried here, didn’t work out that well, but maybe now it could be tried again. After all, who really cares as long as the toys are cheap.

Schneeberger pulls out another book, this one on cheap paper, with a paper cover featuring a youngish man with an ernest look on his face. He is lawyer Gao Zhisheng and is book is called A China More Just. This high-powered figure started defending human rights groups, but disappeared off the face of the earth. I cannot help but recall the story of Raoul Wallenberg. The Chinese did not publish his book, of course, they outsourced the job to  South Korea, which had it printed … in China. There will always be a Kafka.

Down the aisle I see a woman in a cage. She hands me bookmarks featuring authors such as Tsering Woeser, whose Notes on Tibet was prohibited for “serious political errors.” Another bookmark announces a round table with Chinese authoress Xu Pei, the Uigur writer Sidik Haji Rouzi, and the Tibetan journalist Tsewang Norbu. And the man at www. savetibet.de hands me brochures, two bumper stickers and a cloth bag bearing the Tibetan flag. He suggests I pass by the Chinese hall on the way out. That will make no difference at all, since the powers-that-be are in fact absent. They are laughing all the way to the nearest bank.lr-China-prison

Yes, some trouble did erupt at a pre-Fair symposium. The official Chinese, worthy heirs to Chairman Mao, were very upset at hearing public displays of real criticism, and Jürgen Boos, head of the Fair, actually apologized. And so, on the first evening, the Wednesday, Angela Merkel visited the Book Fair. She was accompanied by Xi Jinping, China’s Vice President. They did not wander through Hall 3.1.  They did not hear of the demo against China in the streets. They avoided the Amnesty International/Fischer round table. Don’t want to rock any boats. Angela Merkel, like most political figures, is just a kind of PR manager at this point. What are a few silenced authors versus billions in high-speed trains and other technology; what are the hundreds of thousands of poorly paid, at times imprisoned workers against cheap shoes, shirts, bicycles and other wares. I cannot help think of Sarah Palin’s recent visit to Hong Kong to talk to Chinese businessmen. She took time to criticize the Obama administration, she calls him a Socialist, she hallucinates about death panels, and that  in the land of laogai.

A cartoon from the 80s comes to mind: Reagan with a quizzical expression on his face holding a document marked “China briefing.” George Shultz then Secretary of State is captioned saying: “Yes, 1 billion Communists, I thought you knew!” Apparently we conveniently forgot and still forget while staring down official bogeymen, smaller ones without quite the clout of the Chinese Communist Party and its gigantic economy. Keep smiling, don’t be so negative, move on. That is the rhetorical soma of the age, the prozac slogans.

 

That gets student Ludvìk Jahn into some serious trouble. It’s something to think about.

Fahrenheit 2009 Part II: Digital Debate

 

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Michael Jackson and Countess Donhöff at eye level

The Fair is business, but it is also a celebration of the convergence two creative impulses, that of the book printers and designers, and that of the authors themselves. A children’s book by a South Korean authoress catches my eye, a tale about a girl with a fox on her head. A simple tale, not trying to be funny, just delightfully illustrated. Non-book articles are also a source of genuine creativity, but Hall 4.0 is just out of my two-day range, so I can only gaze briefly. The business of bookselling, too, requires genuine skill. Many publishers still have the courage and backbone to do less popular projects, Michael Jackson thus finds a spot next to a bio of Hitler-opponent Countess Marion Donhöff (biographies are big anyway, I suspect we are always curious about what other people are doing). On that score, the Book Fair never seems to change. But each year, it has a few big issues to confront

Off the books: liber digitalis 

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Enthusiastic lip service about iPhone cookbooks

The big buzz, of course, is the inexorable progress of the digital soldier ants through the old, old market structures of the printing industry. Its all about  eBooks, iBooks, Web-based books and Internet-based business models, and the biggest elephant in the room: the Kindle, born on the 19th of October. A small amount of space, about 2000 square feet (about 200 square meters)  is devoted to “Books & Bytes.” It exhibits several possibilities for reading electronic books, but none yet really replicate “the book feeling.” You can’t thumb pages quickly (yet), or find a page serendipitously. And if they fall over the side of a bed, for example, they may well break. Vodafone is promising to send end-users novels on their mobile phones (I’ll try and then report), and three experts in the field of cooking – there we go again – discussed the sheer brilliance of having recipes with great pics beamed to your iPhone. “You can take it along with you when shopping…”  one of them says. Next innovation down this line: the plastic cover to protect the device from spatter. Whatever: I suspect that next year, Amazon and Google, once odd fellows, now giant players, will probably own half of Hall 3.0… And watch for the next development promised by the Wi-Fi Alliance (Intel, Apple, Cisco are the main culprits) from Silicon Valley: Wi-Fi Direct. This system will, if I understand it correctly, piggyback Wi-Fi from one enabled device to the other, no need for Bluetooth, no need for Wi-Fi in some cases, no fuss, no muss, and a lot of electronic garbage from the last generation of innovative junk.

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Those pesky hardcopy books
 All this e-stuff naturally raises the hackles of more traditional folk. Philosophers, perhaps, should start getting involved, but they are too busy these days eking out a living as taxi drivers, key account managers, down-and-out editors and business gurus. The authors’ societies (and hence the authors and rights holders) are justifiably worried. Google’s book digitizing project is quite controversial… The Fair edition of The Bookseller has an interview with Tom Turvey, director of strategic partnerships at Google, regarding the pending Book Settlement. He is naturally eager for rights holders to sign into the Google library – and admittedly there are some who believe firmly that Google is acting as the world’s e-brarian out of pure altruism, just as there are those who believe that Windows Vista is an improvement over XP.  “Rights holders are obviously free to make whatever decision they wish,” says Turvey (thank you master!). “We believe the public benefits when rights holders have the choice to participate or not in its (the Settlement’s) terms and there is competition in the digital book space.” Right. The question is, what happens to the rights holders who decide not to cast in their lot with Google. Turvey is not clear about that, but he does have a very nice smile on his face. He must be a nice man. And he works in the upper echelons of a company with a very cute name.
Google-Store
Future libraries for the digi-incrowd

 

The hellish vision: A digital content aggregator puts together novels and fact books that can be downloaded onto books with Wii-like pages that replicate turning. No fuss, no muss with those greedy authors, sourpuss editors, bean-counting lawyers  and grumpy literary critics. The lovers of real books will simply become the savages in the year X of Our Google. And that is the point made by Dr. Christian Sprang, legal adviser at the Stock Exchange Association of the German Book Trade at a debate on the thrid day of the Fair. He wants rights holders to have an opt-in option, not just the opt-out one. And Professor Roland Reuss simply says Google has broken the law by digitizing books without permission.

Interlude

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Joseph E. Hanhart, still in the savannah of real print

Niches.  The last refuge of the real book in the future? The Book Fair is full of them, and some still smell of printer’s ink, of hot presses, of red wine and even a touch of sulphur. Meet Joseph E. Hanhart of Editions Heuwinkel from Carouge (by Geneva), Switzerland. His bright blue eyes are full of humor, he still holds books in a firm yet loving manner. He publishes art books in varying sizes, each done with great care. The program also includes books on yoga and on Switzerland. He feels the market does need the diversity and he is optimistic. “In nature, you have brush and you have tall, visible trees,” he points out, “and without the grasses, the weeds and all that stuff, those tall trees could not survive.” But nature and human nature are two different shoes as they say in German.  We will eat up our entire planet, suck out its entrails and raze its forests just to get hamburgers cheaply and fuel to run our cars.

And so we get onto talking about bigger things. Hanhart is a genial storyteller in at least three languages. He suddenly mentions the 450th anniversary of the University of Geneva, which was founded by Calvin. One of the speakers was Stephen Hawking. Someone in the audience asked what god was doing before his seven days of heavy labor. “Preparing hell for the likes of you,” answered Hawking. Asymmetrical juxtapositions replacing dialectics.

 

Please check Part III: Chinese Checkers