IN France, bookstores and literary culture thrive, in part because of laws privileging books and protecting their producers and disseminators. A recent discussion in the New York Times Book Review asked if we need a similar system here.
The provocative critic Daniel Mendelsohn starts by talking about cultural differences between French and American culture.
Whatever the cultural reasons, books in France are indeed an “essential good” — the designation coined by the French government that served to justify the very concrete steps it has taken over the years to protect its precious literary culture. The most prominent of these are laws outlawing the advantages (deep discounting combined with free shipping) that big chains and Amazon enjoy over independent booksellers in the United States and other countries. These help explain a phenomenon that inevitably strikes American visitors to France today: As even big chains such as Borders and Barnes & Noble have faltered here, every block in central Paris seems to sprout at least two small, intelligently stocked bookshops.
As well they should. On average, a Frenchman reads 25 percent more books per year than an American does. (The shocked outcry over the French culture minister’s admission that she hasn’t read a book in two years only proves how anomalous she is.) Other statistics are equally striking. In 2008, for instance, 14 percent of books published in France were translations from other languages: a key indicator of a nation’s intellectual curiosity and awareness. In the United States, the figure scrapes along at 3 percent.
What do my readers — a number of whom seem to live in Europe, especially the German-speaking world — make of this?
UPDATE: For what it’s worth, Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid takes a slightly different tack, arguing that writers are part of a larger, broader class getting crushed by relentless global capital. His point of view is similar — though not identical — to the way I frame the situation in my upcoming book, Culture Crash.