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A Call to Service: Exclusive Books CEO Benjamin Trisk’s 2016 Franschhoek Address

Helen Maisels-Trisk, Sindiwe Magona, Benjamin Trisk
Helen Maisels-Trisk, Sindiwe Magona and Benjamin Trisk at the Exclusive Books dinner at Le Quartier Francais
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Last Thursday, 12 May, Exclusive Books CEO Benjamin Trisk gave the following address at the annual EB dinner at Le Quartier Francais, ahead of the kickoff of the 2016 Franschhoek Literary Festival.

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A Call to Service

I am indebted to an article in the Columbia Journalism Review for this quote:

Printing which Rivarol so judiciously called the artillery of thought, and of which Luther said that it is the last and best gift by which God advances the things of the gospel—, printing which has changed the destiny of Europe, and which, especially during the last two centuries, has governed opinion through the book, the pamphlet, and the newspaper—printing, which since 1436 has reigned despotically over the mind of man is, in my opinion, threatened with death ……by the various devices for registering sound which have lately been invented, and which little by little will go on to perfection.

Taken from Scribner’s magazine, 1894

To see two people demonstrably in love surely lifts the spirit. To see a mother reading to her young son in one of our stores, does the same.

We are in thrall to the intimacy of the moment – because it is one frozen second that presages so much for the future and we have been privileged to share it – even as outsiders. It may be only an incremental nudge, widening the present and heralding tomorrow, but the moment is also the release of the very nucleus of energy and, intuitively, we know it.

These moments may be signal passages between worlds; but just as lovers pull each other along to understand more of their lives separate and divisible, just as the mother pours her spirit into her child, so does the book convey its reader along the silent passage to gaze in awe at worlds not yet seen, at lives unthought.

Bookselling is, for us, a call to service in the Salvation Army. It is, in essence, an endeavour – feeding the not known to knowledge yet to be born.

Reading is the table on which we lay out our wares. The slow, remorseless accumulation of understanding is the key that opened our doors this morning – and it will open them tomorrow and the morning after that.

Reading is, can be, should be the most personal of pleasures. It may be mechanistic in its processes but it is surely among the most credible of human affirmations. It announces us; we think; Nick Hornby describes reading as:

…a long conversation with several different people, all of them living in your head, all of them demanding your attention. The best books [he says] create yet another mouth to feed.

I can think of no gift greater than a literate life. The ability to engage with ideas, to absorb them, articulate them and transmit them is surely one of the outcomes we all wish for our children as they navigate the rivers of their education. However, a literate life does not end at that point, it ultimately remains the critical engine of our knowing – cradle to grave. And there is little better to validate our lives than to hand to our young the literary life that we want for ourselves or that we aspire to.

When my partners and I bought Exclusive Books 30 months ago, many thought that the reading of books might be the last frontier: a place where the unenlightened encamped in a doomed redoubt to fight one last battle against the inevitable onslaught of technology and the diminishing powers of concentration.

That battle has mostly been won. The Kindle is in decline, the price differential between the e-book and the physical has largely disappeared and electronic downloads are in retreat. So dramatic has been the resurgence of the physical book that James Daunt, the chief executive of Waterstones in the UK, was moved to declare last year that the “the Kindle was dead”. Waterstones delisted the product and its paraphernalia.

Nonetheless, as is the natural rhythm of South Africa, the Hegelian spirit always looms large: no sooner have we resolved one argument than another lies in wait. But it is less between the book and other electronic platforms this time than it is between conflicting ideas that entangle themselves in a fundamental debate around the meaning of culture and the importance of language.

It was here, in Franschhoek, at this festival 12 months ago, that a spark was lit by a young writer who said he would no longer attend “white colonial literary festivals” where, he said, he was going to “stop asking whiteness to take him more seriously”.

Much of the debate since then has centred, unfortunately in our view, on race; and “decolonisation” has become overworked as both a verb and as an adjective.

The thrust of its meaning, however, is unmistakeable in the cauldron of our own national politics: our institutions must be “Africanised” and white people must be more accommodating of complex indigenous identities.

When this applies to our own industry, whether it be writing, publishing or bookselling it can be reduced to three separate but over-lapping sets:

  • Support for local authors;
  • The availability and price of the book;
  • More publishing in the vernacular

Like Peer Gynt’s onion the issue has no single kernel of truth. There are many truths here, one wrapped inside the other. Moreover, it is not our job, as the largest bookseller in the nation, to please our critics. It is, however, our job to listen to them and to be brutally honest about our own shortcomings. But this comes with a caveat: over-riding the noise about whether we do things well or badly is the economic imperative that our shareholders want returns that are commensurate (a) with what we can earn in the market place and (b) that reflect the risk we took in making the initial investment to buy this business.

It is an enduring theme in Theodore Yeltsin’s remarkable intimate history of humanity that we all live in two worlds: one that we each shape privately for ourselves and the one that we share, indivisible and common. You can choose to shelter in your own made-world: it matters not whether it is Francophone, decolonised, green or anything else. What matters is that, ultimately, a private reality, however the action and rationale around it is constructed, potentially subtracts from our humanity. Bridging these worlds requires effort; our private worlds are necessary but they should not define us and they should not keep us apart.

We can learn a lesson from the great Kenyan author, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o who chose to write in his native Gikuyu and Swahili. At one stage he embraced a Fanonist credo – whether he still holds to it I do not know, nor is it important because the value of literature is not its tenet but its empathy and its loud applause for the striving of the human spirit. Thiong’o’s work has acquired cult status in Kenya because it can be accessed in the vernacular; in parallel his work hovers on the verge of recognition by the Nobel committee because critics around the world can applaud the English translations. In the same vein he has chosen to occupy chairs at major American universities where English is the medium of instruction.

The point I make is that wa Thiong’o’s voice resonates across cultures because his writing is work of real worth. The source of the text, vernacular or English does not matter a jot.

The desire for national identity is as old as time. While we may lose patience with local demands for more work in the vernacular, I might remind you of the extraordinary story told by Aaron Lansky. It is his account (in Outwitting History) of what started off as a lone journey to rescue the world’s repository of Yiddish books. The number thought to be extant at that time (in the early eighties) was 70,000 volumes. Yiddish was/is a dying language; it was generally believed that the holocaust had inevitably destroyed the spine of the written language; and, what had survived thereafter had perished in the wastes of Russian communism. Today the national Yiddish book centre in Amherst Massachusetts, founded by Lansky, houses 1,500,000 volumes and is a pivotal impulse for the continuation of a vibrant American Jewish cultural movement.

If we applaud Lansky’s efforts, and we certainly should, how dare we take a different stance to the many different African languages that colour the South African landscape. They are equally important for the survival of the rich tapestry that weaves itself around our shared history. Naturally, the more that is written in the vernacular, the more that is translated into English, the greater is the chance that we will discover our own voices that transcend race, culture and the narrow confines of ideology. However, economics looms large in this scenario.

Publishing is a high risk business. No less so is bookselling. How then do we answer the legitimate demands of good writing in languages other than English? Could it not be persuasive for publishers to address government and the SA book development council on this issue: rather than deprive the fiscus of VAT on books, a proposal that has been made before and has been resisted, rather ask that the VAT proceeds on books are, at the very least, applied to the industry we serve. Let us use the VAT revenues to help fund the publication of worthwhile literary effort.

What can Exclusive Books do to address issues around accessibility and promotion of South African authors? Let me first tell you what we will not do. Outside of our regular annual campaign that is focussed on South African literature (HomeBru), we will not promote books simply because they are South African. Writing is an artisanal craft and it transcends all boundaries. The market makes its decision. We should respect this force above all others.

However, what we will do and we are in the process of doing, is the following:

Firstly, in the same way that we have a core list across all books that we expect each of our shops to stock (and our managers are marked on their fidelity to the core list) – we are in the process of establishing a second core list, one that is focussed purely on South African books. In this regard, as in all our buying, merit trumps origin.

Secondly, we have decided to award an annual literary prize. The details will be announced in the next month or so. The award celebrates the craft of writing. The value of the prize will be substantial and will be in the front-rank of SA literary prizes. A shortlist will be selected by key store managers. Three independent judges will determine the winner. It is envisaged that this should be a long-term commitment. If the judges cannot determine a winner in any year the prize will accumulate in the following year. I am hopeful that once we have completed a timeline and agreed implementation of the first prize may still be awarded before the end of this year.

Thirdly, it is a discordant and uncomfortable truth that bookshops do not exist in areas where the majority of our countrymen still live. We need to address this and we see it as an immediate priority. In this context particularly we should welcome the voices of young people who have highlighted our neglect of a crucial market. There is work to do – for both us and the publishers.

Fourthly, I have long-said that we are a primary impulse in the curation of the national taste. It is a natural corollary of how we see ourselves that we should serve as a catalyst for a still wider national debate. To this end, in the second half of the year, together with both a media partner and an accredited, leading university partner, we will emulate the TED talks – the focus however will be on South African issues and the purpose will be to foster understanding. Again, we hope that a formal announcement of the initiative will be made during the course of next month.

Words are like fingerprints. Write a paragraph and I will know you anywhere. This is the wonder of our vocation: that a history once made cannot be unmade. Words carry history along on their tide and ultimately nothing bears testimony so stridently as the ideas men and women put to paper. A case in point is the extraordinary circumstance surrounding the author Irene Nemirovsky. Born in 1903 and initially Ukrainian, she fled Kiev with her family as the communist threat towards Jews became more pronounced. She settled in Paris and enjoyed a sheltered life with her very wealthy parents. She was successful as an author and had a film made of her book, David Golder. As the Nazis came closer to Paris at the end of 1939 she sent her two children to the south of France to be cared for. Having fled her homeland once she was not prepared to abandon her home a second time. Ultimately she joined her children before being arrested by the Nazis and deported to Auschwitz where she died. She left behind a locked suitcase with her older daughter with instructions not to open it. When it was finally opened in the 1990s it was found to contain a profound novel about the lives of ordinary people in occupied France under a Vichy dictatorship. The book was published as Suite Francaise in France and in an English translation by Knopf in 2004.

The name Olga Ivinskaya may not be on your speed dial I would not be surprised. She died in 1995. Her life was one of great hardship – primarily because she was Boris Pasternak’s lover for the last 13 years of his life. She was sentenced to time in the Gulag. Her crime was to love Pasternak. Her dedication to Pasternak in her memoir, A Prisoner of Time, reads as follows:

…the greater part of my conscious life has been devoted to you – and what is left of it will also be devoted to you.

In less melodramatic fashion, but with every one of our formidable Exclusive Books people in mind I can tell you: publishers, authors, friends and customers: we feel exactly the same way.

Thank you.

— Benjamin Trisk, CEO, Exclusive Books

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