18. News Release Prepared in the Office of Public Information, United States Information Agency1

No. 14

Address by Carl Rowan, Director, U.S. Information Agency at the American Booksellers Association Convention

Mr. Wimpfheimer, Mr. Duffy—and ladies and gentlemen:

Where were all of you when I was writing books? There’s nothing on any royalty report of mine that even suggests that there are this many people going under the label of bookseller.

If I sound a little miffed, it’s only because I’ve been reading all these stories about how some “mystery man” went to Bennett Cerf2 and tried to buy up the whole printing of “The Invisible Government.”3 There wasn’t a sign in any of those stories that, in turning down the mystery man, Bennett offered him the alternative of buying up what’s left of the first printing of any of my books! What a patriotic gesture that would have been toward an ex-author whose next book will be “The Invisible Bankbook.”

But I hope all this business about “mystery men” and books that are full of security leaks doesn’t give any of you the notion that government people are against the book business. We’re just hard-working patriots who believe in the Constitution and the Bible. Our favorite Bible pas [Page 48] sage is the one in Ecclesiastes that reads: “Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

My 11- and 12-year-old boys give a resounding “AMEN” to the last part of that verse.

And I may add with some seriousness that there is more evidence than my royalty statements or your profit sheets that books have never been as welcome as would be wished by those of us who regard knowledge as a primary virtue.

“I hate books,” muttered the highly-literary Rousseau,4 “for they only teach people to talk about what they do not understand.”

G. C. Lichtenberg,5 the 18th century German critic, put the matter candidly enough: “Books, nowadays,” he said, “are printed by people who do not understand them, sold by people who do not understand them, read and reviewed by people who do not understand them, and even written by people who do not understand them.”

This same cheerful gentleman, Lichtenberg, reviewing a book of his own day, could only bring himself to comment: “This book has had the effect which good books usually have: it has made the fools more foolish, the intelligent more intelligent, and left the majority as they were.”

Benjamin Disraeli,6 the brilliant British politician, who, when he was not popping in and out of the Prime Ministership of England, whiled away his time turning out a whole shelf-full of successful novels, might have been expected to have something kind to say about books; but listen to him: “Books are fatal: they are the curse of the human race. Nine-tenths of existing books are nonsense, and the clever books are the refutation of that nonsense. The greatest misfortune that ever befell man was the invention of printing.”

But surely one of the darkest moments in any author’s life occurred to poor Edward Gibbon,7 when he presented a copy of the third volume of his celebrated Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to the Duke of Gloucester, brother of George III.8 History has recorded the Royal Duke’s comments of that moment—and surely they should stand engraved on the writing desk of any hard-working author naive enough to put his trust in the permanence of literary fame: “What!” shouted [Page 49] the Duke, as Gibbon proudly handed him his labor of love, “Another of those damned, fat, square, thick books! Always scribble, scribble, scribble, eh, Mr. Gibbon?”

Well, a remark that scathing from so imposing a royal critic ought—one supposes—to have been the preface to the Decline and Fall of Edward Gibbon. But books have a way of burying their own undertakers; and today you can still buy a copy of that book, or even see a multi-million dollar movie version of it—but who remembers the long-fallen and apparently unlamented Duke of Gloucester?

Say what you will about books: curse them, damn them, burn them, blast them—they remain one of the great, indispensable building blocks of civilization . . . and a bookless world would surely be an exact and terrifying synonym for an inhuman world. For it is out of books that man recovers, saves, uses some of the fragments of learning that are washed up in the deluge of time.

Certainly in our business in USIA the book bulks large.

In our mandate to further the foreign policy objectives of the United States, USIA uses every known tool and technique of communication. We use ancient Asian morality plays—and avant-garde American art. We edit neo-literate wall-newspapers—and learned academic journals. We employ traveling village troubadours—and orbiting relay satellites.

We use in any given case the best communication medium available to get the right message to the right audience at the right time.

But though we are, and must remain, flexible in our choice of means, one of the hardiest and time-tested means is the simple book.

There are, for example, our libraries, reading rooms, and bi-national centers: more than 400 points of book-lending, in more than 80 countries, stretching from Stockholm to Stanleyville, from Tokyo to Tegucigalpa.

Every year more than 30 million different people visit our libraries across the world, borrowing nearly eight million volumes, and consulting twice that number on the premises.

Opening a new USIS library is often such a local event that crowd-control becomes a problem. In Marrakech the response was so overwhelming that library membership cards, limited to one-day-a-week admittance, finally had to be issued.

After a month’s operation of our new library in Nyasaland, only 20 percent of the collection was left on the shelves: 80 percent of the books had been borrowed immediately.

In Calcutta, the USIS library with 20,000 volumes does as much business as India’s National Library with more than a million volumes.

To get American books into the hands of important readers in the hinterland, we operate USIS traveling libraries and bookmobiles in certain countries.

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In Israel, the USIS bookmobile was hotly pursued by a police car until our worried driver finally pulled over to the side of the road, and steeled himself for a ticket. “Look here!” said the two earnest men in uniform as they hurried up to the car, “We’d like some books, too. So don’t keep passing up our police outpost!”

A village leader in Pakistan, told politely that he had exceeded the number of books a single patron could borrow at one time from the USIS bookmobile, promptly rounded up his nine children and checked out an additional volume in the name of each child.

In Rangoon, a school teacher came 18 miles for a book on a topic her class was studying. Seeing related titles on the shelves, she sighed: “Ah, if only I could stay here several days and read these other books . . .” Told by our librarian that she could borrow the volumes, her incredulous stare of blank disbelief was broken only by the books being placed physically in her hands.

When Turkey began drafting its new constitution, our USIS library in Ankara was asked for basic works on American democratic institutions. As a result, passages in the Turkish Constitution in force today are based on that reference material.9

Last year, during consultations of African leaders in Kampala, the Attorneys General of Uganda and Kenya, together with a prominent attorney representing Tanganyika,10 visited the USIS library and borrowed books on U.S. constitutional law, in connection with proposals for a draft constitution.

Not only are there constant requests around the world for us to expand our library activities, but whenever budget stringencies require us to close a library or a reading room, there are massive petitions from the local community to keep it open. Just this week I got angry protests from Finland where a rumor was out that the USIS library would be closed.

Indeed, the whole problem with books in many parts of the newly-developing world is not that books are not highly esteemed—but precisely the opposite. In some places, books are esteemed much too much!

In Asia, for example, our posts sometimes donate small, select collections of American books to important colleges. These books are received with such overwhelming gratitude that the affair is usually an elaborate one, with the college rector arranging a formal ceremony of acceptance before the entire assembled student body, complete with garlands of flowers, a high tea, and profuse speeches all around.

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But nothing is more frustrating for the USIS officer, checking in for a visit to the college a few months later, than to discover that the books are almost hermetically sealed in locked glass bookcases in the rector’s office . . . in absolute mint condition, untouched by human hand, and even worse, unread by human eye. There the books are—proudly on display—clearly regarded with immense esteem; but treasured like a set of crown jewels, rather than used like a set of classroom tools.

When our USIS officer politely remonstrates with the rector that the books don’t seem to be getting much use, the rector is likely to reply in surprise, “Oh, but we keep them locked in here only because we are afraid the students might steal them. You know how it is: books—especially American books—are so very valuable in our country!”

It is true. And it is a problem. There are still many parts of the world where an American book has such great value that its usefulness is severely compromised.

That is one reason the Model Book Store Exhibit, that your association helped us put together, has been so useful to us overseas. It has been a tremendous hit wherever it has traveled—and by showing in so graphic and attractive a way how books are promoted and sold in America, it helps open new channels of trade which will increase the sale of American books abroad.

All of us in USIA are gratified, too, at the immense success of the ABA International White House Libraries Project. This effort is an outstanding example of the way in which American private enterprise can effectively further our national interests abroad.

And, of course, the open-shelf system in our USIS libraries overseas is another compelling and contagious example of book accessibility.

But there is still another reason we are proud of our USIS libraries . . . and that is because they are blown up so often!

Since 1947 we have had 58 attacks of open violence on our libraries in a total of 29 countries.

As overseas agencies go, USIA has a pretty modest budget—just how modest becomes evident when one considers that if we had AID’s budget for a single year, it would carry us along for more than 20 years; and if we had the Defense Department’s budget for a single year, it would run USIA for almost four centuries.

But without question, USIA spends more for broken window panes overseas than AID and Defense put together!

While we in USIA are serious about economizing, we are rather proud of those broken windows. Because when an emotional mob decides that it is disappointed with the United States—and wants to [Page 52] tell it so—it usually picks out the USIS library as the one conspicuous, well-known and well-liked symbol of the United States on the main street of the city.

Our libraries are blown up—not because they aren’t appreciated (indeed, the repairs are almost always paid for by an apologetic host government; and sometimes even by spontaneous and unsolicited donations from the readers themselves), but because in the heat of mob passion, the USIS library seems the most obvious and frequented symbol of Uncle Sam—and is the U.S. building which most youth know by location.

Uncle Sam,11 I like to think, could do much worse than be symbolized by a free, open, democratic public library!

What is even more interesting, our libraries are blown up by elements of the extreme political right as well as by elements of the extreme political left.

In fact, the bombings have happened so often now that it has been suggested to our Training Division that perhaps a seminar or two on Demolitions Discovery, De-Fusing, and Disposal might well be sandwiched in with the lectures on the Dewey Decimal System we give our lady librarians.

But all things considered, there is almost a certain symbolic cheerfulness in these acts of violence in our libraries. Rarely is anyone hurt—and the motivation for the riots can be quite revealing. In Salisbury, Rhodesia,12 for example, a young African tossed a brick through our library window. The police promptly arrested him, but when they asked him why he had done it, he replied with proud gusto: “Because ‘the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots . . .’!”

The quotation, of course, is from Thomas Jefferson.13 And where had this proud young African read it? In that same USIS library, naturally.

I don’t think this argues that we ought to take Thomas Jefferson off our USIS shelves.

I think it does argue that we can afford a few broken windows—if in the end the USIS libraries can help keep the American message of liberty, freedom and equality alive?

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Of course, this great nation of ours being such a kaleidoscope of contrasts and convictions, we have a job keeping the book collections in our libraries fully representative. And sometimes American tourists who drop into our USIS libraries overseas complain that we have too many of this kind of book—and not enough of that kind of book; or that we cover this point of view, but not that point of view; or that this author is represented, but not that author—and so on.

And some U.S. tourists feel that certain of the American novels on our shelves present too negative a view of American society.

Well, we work hard at keeping our book collections balanced and representative, but whenever a returning tourist or Congressman complains to me that some of the American novelists on our library shelves present too critical a picture of the United States, I like to recall a little story Robert Penn Warren14 tells about a conversation he had once with an Italian Fascist who had deserted Mussolini in World War II, and had come over to fight on our side.

Why had he done this? Warren asked him.

“Because of your American novelists,” the man replied. “The Fascists used to let us read American fiction because it gave—they thought—a picture of a decadent America. They thought it was good propaganda for Fascism to let us read Dreiser, Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis.15 But you know, it suddenly occurred to me that if democracy could allow that kind of criticism of itself, it must be very strong and good. So I took to the mountains.”16

I now take to the mountains of work on my desk. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, very much.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 306, USIA Historical Collection, Agency History Program Subject Files, 1926–1975, Entry A1–1072, Box 13, Speeches, Carl T. Rowan, 1964. No classification marking. Rowan addressed the American Booksellers Association convention at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington on June 9.
  2. Founder and President of Random House publishing company.
  3. Reference is to the 1964 book, The Invisible Government, written by journalists David Wise and Thomas B. Ross, which examines the U.S. Government intelligence apparatus.
  4. Reference is to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th century French philosopher, political theorist, and writer. The quote is from Rousseau’s Emile: Or a Treatise on Education (1762).
  5. Reference is to Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, the German scientist and writer.
  6. Prime Minister of Great Britain, 1868 and 1874–1880. The quotation is from Disraeli’s book, Lothair (1870).
  7. Eighteenth century English historian.
  8. Reference is to Prince William Henry.
  9. On May 27, 1961, the Government of Turkey adopted a new constitution. (“Turkey Approves Revised Charter,” New York Times, May 28, 1961, p. 8)
  10. Reference is to the former name for Tanzania.
  11. The name and cultural icon, Uncle Sam, is used as a symbol to represent and substitute for the United States.
  12. Reference is to the former name for the Southern African country of Zimbabwe.
  13. Third President of the United States from 1801 until 1809. The quotation is taken from a letter Jefferson wrote in 1787.
  14. American poet, novelist, and literary critic.
  15. References are to American writers Theodore Dreiser, William Faulkner, and Sinclair Lewis.
  16. The quotation is from Warren’s essay “A Lesson Read in American Books.” (Charlotte H. Beck, Robert Penn Warren: Critic (Knoxville, Tennessee: The University of Tennessee Press, 2006), pp. 96–97)