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Bookshelves, book bans, and fake news

Recipient profile picture Markus Dohle
27 April
Dear Markus Dohle,
After years of shopping at my city bookstore, I began to notice something odd about books and their distributions. Two thirds of the store, I'd say, consists of fiction books, children's books, and young adult fiction. The final third, of course, consists of non-fiction books — a lot of which is made up of biographies and history books. What dismays me, however, is just how few science books there are relative to everything else on display. Now, I’m well aware that this is a sample size of one, and that I should refrain from sweeping judgment. But it saddens me when there are more books on cryptocurrency trading, forex speculation, and get-rich-schemes than there are on natural history, astronomy, and climate change. None of this is surprising, of course. Bookstores in democratic countries are a product of supply and demand. People love a good yarn and the hero’s journey, and so authors are inclined to weave great tales of the past and of imagination. Fiction, history, and biographies predominate for this reason. People, likewise, want convenient answers to the troubles, insecurities and uncertainties in their life. They create lucrative niches for financial gurus and snake oil salesmen on the shelves. I don’t see any reason as to why this might change anytime soon. And maybe that’s okay? Who am I to say what people should and should not read in their leisurely time. But I am a little concerned about the modern patterns of information consumption and its effects on public discourse and the national psyche. History, however, has often approached this problem in the opposite extreme. The Catholic Church, for example, have long sought to preserve their absolute truth by prohibiting books that threatened their world order. Until its abolition in 1966, the “Index Librorum Prohibitorum” banned the works of Galileo Galileo, Blaise Pascal, Nicolaus Copernicus, and other pioneering thinkers at one point of time or another. Today, the fight for information manifests in a different way as authorities seek to combat fake news and misinformation on social media at a glacial pace. Meanwhile, the gulf between polarized groups widens as people wallow in the confirmation bias afforded by the internet and their social media algorithms. Most of us live with a strong feeling of agency. But because we don’t know what we don’t know, and cannot see the hidden forces that move us, we are unwittingly vulnerable to its influence. From the supermarket to the stock market to the bookshelves, we are bombarded by noise and information everyday — nudged and influenced in ways we do not realize. Markus, as the CEO of Penguin Random House, you must have a view on all of this. The New York Times reported recently that you are investing upwards of $500,000 of your personal wealth to promote free speech and fight book bans. I suspect you have a lot of interesting things to say about this topic. Can you elaborate on your current ideas with regards to book consumption, fake news, and recent book bans? In your opinion, what are the biggest priorities and challenges for Penguin Random House and other publishers from an ethical and moral standpoint? What would you like to see change? Thanks for listening. Warm regards,

Tobias Lim

Author profile picture Tobias Lim

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