“Your face, my thane, is as a book where men
May read strange matters”
– Lady Macbeth to Macbeth, the thane of Cawdor, in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Act 1, Scene 5.
If books reflect culture, book reading habits too, perhaps, reflect a people’s tribal instinct. And then, do social events like ‘book parties’ reflect something intrinsic about different social groups, different national groups?
Shoba Narayan seems to think so. At least when it comes to Indian versus American ‘book release parties.’ Her vividly observant article at Wall Street Journal, The Indian Book Ceremony.
In the United States, the publisher manages the event to celebrate the author and then sell as many books as possible. By contrast, for “the argumentative Indian” it’s all about a well-spent evening of discussions and disagreements, regardless of how few copies were sold at the end of it
In the U.S., everybody accepts that there’s a mini cult of personality around the writer.
Ms. Narayan doesn’t quite state, but implies that somehow the Indians seem to emphasize the book and the event more than the author. At least, that is how it is hinted, here:
We Indians are a ceremony-driven people. Book readings are not merely announced in the local paper but through personal invitations sent to friends and relatives. Sometimes the bookstore sends these invitations to everyone on their mailing list; other times the publisher does this. Likewise, politicians are welcomed to conventions not merely with a handshake and introduction but with garlands and bouquets, …
….. Stores open with a traditional ribbon-cutting, followed by the lamp-lighting.
The same Indian who rudely cuts ahead of a queue of strangers will refuse to help himself to the buffet until his elderly uncle has eaten. All suggestions to “go ahead and eat” will be met with pehle aap. The same applies to authors who are loathe to be the only ones talking about their book. Instead they follow the literary version of “pehle aap,” where they get a panel of guests to go first. To the Indian, talking about one’s own book or accomplishments is intrinsically boastful.
To a Western publicist, panel discussions are a minefield. They can go off-message, ramble all over the place so that the audience gets bored, take the spotlight away from the author, and in the worst case scenario, criticize the author and book. But these are chances that Indian publishers and authors readily take.
But Indian authors want a panel anyway. We are comfortable in crowds; we need people around us, even on a dais. We are used to loud and vocal disagreements, having heard it all the time in family quarrels. Hollywood stars and American politicians revel in the spotlight. In India, it is the opposite: Being surrounded by people is the true show of strength.
On a broader note, if this item were to be believed, the French love reading fiction, even the gloomier variety; Germans love out door stuff; the English lighter fare, and Americans even lighter fare. Someone recently claimed that Indians read the most, in a general survey of reading. And, that in a few decades majority of English speakers in the world will be Indian! What do these factoids bear on the social organization of book coming out parties?
As side note to the above block quotes, is ribbon cutting really a tradition in the same vein as lighting a lamp? Isn’t it more of a true colonial vestige, albeit a well-integrated vestige? In any case, this sharp observation of Indian character is quite revealing.
Finally, to I.U., this looks like a case of adaptation, the casting of a native attitude into an alien form of social activity. After all, traditionally the Indian writer looked to a royal or governmental patronage of arts. Only now, being democratic and all, book launches take on this new mongrel form, more out of need than by design.
What do you think?