“Liber liber?” – On the Freedom of Books

book nook

 

Today, April 23, 2014, is the UNESCO World Book and Copyright Day. Occasion enough to write a little piece about an obviousness that we, that I, sometimes forget: Books are not free.

Liber liber non est. (The book is not free. Isn’t Latin beautiful?!) A play of words – and a play of double meaning. No, books are not free. Ultimately they can’t. Too many people are involved in the process of their making. Too many people’s water bills, school tuition, and grocery expenses depend on getting something back for the time they – the writers, editors, publishers, printers, and deliverers – put into producing books. No, books cannot be free (of charge). Now, that is – very roughly – the basis for the copyright part (…since April 23 is also a day of raising awareness for copyright and intellectual property, which involves more than just books, obviously).

What about the non-commercial freedom of books? What about their nature, their “character”? Are books neutral? What about their biases, their agenda, or even the “spirit” of books?

Well, I personally believe that books are not free, not neutral, not unbiased. And I am taking the word “neutral” as something that is simply informing, nothing more. Rarely are books simply “informing”. (Ok, the telephone book has parts that could be called “neutral”, but that’s over once you flip to the advertisement part.) Every book has an author. And if it is an author at all, then he/she put some thoughts into the writing. Thoughts with a content, a structure, an agenda. Thoughts that do not only want to inform, but that also want to move something – or move to something. This can be very positive, life enhancing, hope inspiring, community serving.

That books can have negative influences as well is well known. I’m from Germany. We had our good share of folly, demagogy, and hatred spread by books. Hitler’s autobiography Mein Kampf (eng. My Struggle) is only one example. The discussion re the expiration of this book’s copyright in 2015 and possible (demagogic) republications by neo-Nazi groups shows the danger that emanates from books like this one. And obviously, the problem lies not in the ink and paper (or pixels of a tablet screen) but in the ideas and agendas that are expressed in writing. Humans are not neutral, not unbiased. They can’t be. Books, as human products, are not neutral either. They always advertise, ban, discourage, encourage, enhance, inspire (to good or bad), promote, or regulate. Often doing all of that in a complex mixture at the same time. As complex as humans are, as complex as this world is.

Have a good World Book and Copyright Day, folks!! 🙂 If you are finishing up your semester and write the last pages of a class paper: don’t plagiarize! Give adequate credit to those you quote and whose main ideas you borrow and write about! To quote someone well is the sign of a good scholar, not of a weak one. – And second: put thought into the books you read (especially besides your studies and professional life). Be intentional about what you feed your brain with. Don’t let others (or the market, for that matter) make such an important decision for you. Think about where you are going in life, where you WANT to be going, and choose books that support you in your goals and activities (especially if you are a Christian). Don’t just read to “pass your time”. Put some thought into it. It’s some of your lifetime, after all…

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