Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. The French government has declared books an “essential good.” This week, Daniel Mendelsohn and Mohsin Hamid debate whether the United States should do the same.
Daniel Mendelsohn and Mohsin Hamid in the New York Times:
As even big chains have faltered here, every block in central Paris seems to sprout at least two small, intelligently stocked bookshops.
“I hope this letter doesn’t give you the impression that I’ve quite lost my mind with delirium over Paris and France,” wrote Joseph Roth, the Austrian journalist and novelist, in a letter to his editor soon after being assigned to Paris in 1925. Some hope. “Paris,” he gushed about the city that would become his home, “is the capital of the world.”
It still feels that way if you’re a writer. “You’re going to feel like you’ve died and gone to heaven,” a novelist friend of mine, unconsciously echoing Roth, knowingly murmured in 2007, when one of my books came out in a French translation. I soon saw what he meant. In the United States, there is one nationally broadcast radio program that has significant coverage of books — NPR’s “Fresh Air,” which book publicists fight over like pi-dogs over a picked bone. In Paris, I soon lost count of how many in-depth radio and TV shows, some as long as an hour, I taped or broadcast live at the circular, weirdly sci-fi-looking Maison de la Radio…
In the balance between our rights as consumers and as producers — as laborers — the pendulum has swung too far one way.
In France, books are treated as an “essential good” like food and utilities, subject to low taxes. At the same time, price discounts on books are limited to 5 percent and can’t be offered in conjunction with free shipping. As a result, it costs pretty much the same to buy a book everywhere in France, including online, and independent bookshops are holding their own against larger competitors.
It’s hard to imagine similar laws being enacted in the United States. Books have no privileged position in the American system of law and commerce. We, the workers of the book business — writers, agents, editors, designers, publicists, booksellers and others — often bemoan this fact. Books, it seems to us, are different. We forgo higher wages doing other things because we love what we do, because we believe in what we do. Surely our industry deserves special treatment…