Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Political Education by André Schiffrin

André Schiffrin is the founder of The New Press, the extraordinary nonprofit publishing house that he created in 1990 after being forced out of his position at the head of Pantheon Books. A Political Education is his modestly brief, yet eye-opening memoir (published by the independent Melville House). Though raised in New York City, Schiffrin was born in France, where his father was an eminent publisher and the creator of the Pléiade series of classic literature (the inspiration for the Library of America series in the US). He has returned regularly for many years, and began in recent years to divide his time between New York and Paris. Schiffrin’s French roots, and his early immersion in socialist thought and political activism, give him a valuable perspective on politics and publishing in the US. It’s sobering, though not surprising, to learn that New York City has lost 90% of the bookstores it had in 1945. France has plenty of bookstores, but the swallowing up of independent publishers by conglomerates has advanced even farther there than it has in the US. Something that did surprise me was the extent to which the insanities of the Korean War prefigured those of Vietnam, and how Cold War censorship and self-censorship covered up those insanities. I didn’t know, for instance, that “MacArthur had proposed dropping fifty atomic bombs along the thirty-eighth parallel dividing the two countries, to make sure that a radioactive border would keep Korea forever divided.” Or that “at least eighteen of the twenty-two major cities [of North Korea] were virtually obliterated” and “more napalm was dropped on the hapless Koreans than we were to use during the whole of the Vietnam War.” Self-censorship is still with us, unfortunately, and the need for independent voices. In the first two years of the Iraq War, Schiffrin points out, no major US publisher would release a book that was critical of the war.

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