This is an unprecedented time for the world of books and publishing, with an extraordinary number of books being published worldwide. Not only was the panic that a digital revolution would spell the end of books pretty short-lived but people are actually buying more books than ever. It is hard to say whether this is due to greedy behemoths like Amazon or the proliferation of book-related content on online platforms, local reading groups, and celebrity book clubs. But the excitement aside, the killjoy in us wants to know: are we actually reading books or are we just hyping them?
The world today is rich with dynamic ideas, culture, and art, and an inspired and energetic generation of people who are willing to fight oppressive structures. Yet, again and again, we see revolutionary concepts being turned into commodities. We get news from everywhere on our phones, give money for good causes at the push of a button, and amplify gross injustices through a tweet but we might suspect there’s a lack of depth in all this and we might even feel confused about whether our contributions are actually making any difference. We’ve become used to radical ideas such as feminism, anti-racism, decolonization, and even activism itself getting co-opted, diluted, and repackaged. We live within a paradox: many of us want to activate and engage our inner warrior, but we also know that many of these causes and ideas have been watered down, branded, and are now probably on sale for 60% off. This phenomenon comes in the way of movement and community building and of devising a systematic push to uproot oppressive structures and rethink traditional frameworks of knowledge.
Where are books and reading in all this? The global literacy rate is at an all time high (over 80%) and global connectivity is also increasing with more than 60% of the world having Internet access. People are definitely reading more, though it’s not necessarily books. At the Radical Books Collective, we believe that books remain the most important tools for societal, political, and individual transformation. But only if we read them! Our reading habits have been taken over by smartphones and the Internet. When we read on screens, we read headlines, quotations and memes. We ditch longreads and move to three-minute quick reads. We pile up PDFs and ebooks but we may not even open them. Books have also become overly curated, siloed and compartmentalized in ways that do not allow different streams of knowledge to overlap and intersect to give us an accurate picture of our world. Thus we land in yet another paradox: while we seem to have more choices than ever and total freedom to choose what we want to read, the reality is that our choices have largely been made for us. Think of the iconic Cerulean Top scene in Devil Wears Prada where Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) breaks down “choice” for cowering assistant Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway). Let’s apply this to publishing.
The book industry has benefited tremendously from digital innovation with the invention of e-books and reading tablets, and with the ability to reach massive numbers of readers through online advertising and marketing. The Internet gives an impression of freedom and openness but gatekeeping still happens. Certain information gets amplified and others never see the light of day. Corporate publishing is able to optimize search engines and dedicate big budgets to generate marketing buzz, ensuring that the same books and authors populate our cultural spaces. This drowns out critically important voices. In fact, many readers don’t even know where to look if they want something outside of what they see displayed on the shelves. And that’s not all. Social media platforms, blogs, Instagram influencers and sponsored book clubs have become so influential that they have begun to impact which books get published in the first place. We are being bombarded with the message that publishing is getting more diverse, more queer, more international, more Black, but what about that small, independent, constantly broke section of the book industry that has always been progressive and pushing those boundaries? Its very survival hangs in the balance.
With the COVID-19 pandemic posing a dire threat, left-wing publishers formed a coalition called the Radical Publishers Alliance in April 2020. They declared: “With the entire book and magazine industry in jeopardy, the only response from radical publishers could be one of unity and solidarity. Uniquely embracing a non-competitive approach to the publishing industries, the Radical Publishers Alliance endeavors through mutual support to develop anti-capitalist publishing strategies benefiting publishers, authors, and readers alike.” They argue that the need for “critical left-thinking” is urgent as the “long” fight against capitalism is imminent. The Radical Books Collective is in solidarity with their mission.
Our intervention is simple: we want to read more, read more widely, and read together. We are creating an inclusive and non-commercial approach to books and reading. We organize book clubs, book and author events, and immersive seminars on foundational radical books. Book clubs today mean big profit for entertainers and conglomerate publishers, but we are nudging book clubs back into an educational and communal space by changing how books are read, circulated, reviewed, and talked about.
We choose bold, politically exciting books ideally published by small presses. We chat about the chosen book for 45 minutes and then meet the book’s author at the end. Our mission is to build discussions around pressing and challenging topics, such as prison and police abolition, feminism, racial justice, and climate justice. Many of these topics have been relegated to fixed categories in bookstores (physical or online), which not only prevents ideas from being in conversation with one another, but also can lead to self-censorship. Lefties scoff at fiction and people who like punchy stories don’t want to read praxis-oriented non-fiction. At our book clubs, people tend to step out of their comfort zone and read something new and different. The author visit at the end breaks down barriers that readers might have had to exploring the topics at hand and leads to a fuller engagement.
Reading together is our first agenda at the Radical Books Collective. But we also want to create awareness about publishing circuits: Who publishes whom? What is the role of agents and editors? Which books get reviewed and which ones don’t? Which books get loads of hype and which books get buried before they are even really born? Why do certain styles and forms of writing thrive and which ones are spurned as difficult, foreign, “bad writing,” hard-to-connect-with, not the right fit, etc.? Lastly, the Radical Books Collective remains deeply concerned about the ways in which the last few centuries of European colonialism have eroded structures of knowledge through violent interventions in publishing and education. We are cognizant of colonialism’s ongoing impact on the politics of languages, translation, publishing infrastructures and costs, the politics of distribution, and access to books.
We certainly don’t have the answers but we are committed to confronting the hard questions through our podcast the BookRising and through our book events and Radical Foundations seminars. Radical books expose structures of oppression and stimulate our imaginations to advance transformative futures.
Radical Books Collective has now teamed up with Africa is a Country to bring you these progressive conversations about books, literature and publishing on this platform. We have a playful series called Bookends lined up, Reading Lists from writers, editors and scholars, reviews of radical books and feature essays about news, circuits, events and scandals in the book and publishing worlds.
Come read with us. Here.