Or Take Venezuela as Your Paradigm of Hope


This past Saturday evening, Juvenal and another friend and I travelled to Memphis to watch the Memphis Redbirds, the AAA Cardinal team. They’re horrible, by the way. I know nothing about how scouting works, but they can’t hit or pitch or field, to speak of, so I’m thinking that’s not a good sign. They are short though–they’ve got that going for them. Wee-little men. Kind of like a bunch of Owen Meanys. I kept wanting them to just stand there and take pitches, as there is no pitcher accurate enough to throw three strikes against these players. [And just as an interesting side note–it is actually cheaper to buy a glass of Johnny Walker Black than it is to buy a Coke at Autozone (?) Park. I mean, I’m just saying…]

So the game itself has nothing to do with books, except only insomuch as we are such big nerds that we left the game early in order to make it to a bookstore before closing time. On the way home, and here I’d like to assert that I had no control over the radio, someone in the car stumbled upon a BBC news broadcast. Interesting to hear a newscast from a different country, even if I’m not exactly happy about what it perhaps might just possibly say about me that I spent midnight until 1:30 in the a.m. on a Saturday night listening to said newscast (again, I had no control over the radio). The reason it was interesting wasn’t the political perspective. It wasn’t that they had a different version of events taking place. It was that there were actually events taking place in the world that have nothing to do with America. And they covered them. Show of hands on how many people know the name of the world’s most respected sailor? I don’t either, but I do remember she was a she. Something happened in the Turkey slash Armenia region. There was even a disputed democratic election somewhere in the world, with which America had nothing to do, and that was probably important to the people of that country. [Sorry for lack of specifics–my job is neither politics nor world news, and did I mention the price of beverages at the ballpark?]

Okay, but then, somewhere in the BBC newscast was a hidden jewel for a nerd such as me. Venezuela, I think, decided to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first printing of Don Quixote by printing 1,000,000 copies of the book and handing it out to their citizens. They’re even ponying up to buy copies for other countries. I was dumbfounded. Cervantes wasn’t Venezuelan, so why did the government decide to do this? Apparently, they think that Quixote is in some way a role model for people, or can make them think about their actions in a different way, or maybe they just think it’s entertaining. There wasn’t a clear reason for the printing and handing out of the book (I mean, when you cover news from around the world, how much time can you give each country?). But, I liked the idea. I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen Don Quixote, but I thought it was kind of a hoping-against-hope action by the government to get people to read and think and what have you.

I wouldn’t want our government to spend money on printing costs for a book, but it did get me thinking about what kind of book might be chosen in America. I actually don’t have any good suggestions for fiction, although I haven’t put just tons of time into thinking about it. Some non-fiction books have jumped to mind. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, for instance. For those who haven’t read it, it’s a great book. Malcolm has a wonderful way of talking about his wild early years and his time in prison without glorifying it or whining about it or using it as a way to say, look at me, I’m a good person for overcoming this. He speaks passionately about his time in the Nation of Islam, where he worked his way up from a mere speaker to the number two man. And he then has a way of explaining his disillusionment with the Nation and how he came to his own ideas and conclusions about race and how people should live their lives rather than what he saw (but didn’t exactly call it, I don’t think) as a brainwashing effect that some ministers can have on their followers. Although I think Malcolm is most remembered for his by-any-means-necessary approach to equality, if you haven’t read it, you also see a man with some regrets, a man with a vision, and a man with a lot of love.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas also popped into my head. In a country that prides itself of the idea of the self-made person, Douglas was the ultimate Horatio Alger. Born into slavery, self-educated, and then became a very influential man when Black men weren’t allowed to be influential. Or if we want to stay in the 19th century, something by Thoreau (please, no) or Emerson, since they had such grand visions for what America could be.

Or would it be a work of fiction that actually changed things in America, like Sinclair’s The Jungle. Obviously, this one wouldn’t work since Sinclair was a Communist, but the novel’s impact on the meat-packing industry in general and food safety in general was immediate.

Venezuela, though, didn’t choose a novel because it necessarily represented their country. They chose it because there was something in it that they wanted their citizens to aspire to. I think that this is where my America-centric perspective blinds me. I immediately started trying to think of books that might make Americans think about the way they view the world, or what it means to be an American. By doing so, I think I’m missing the point, and even the bravery, of the Venezuelan government. I’m sure there are some great Venezuelan writers, both past and present (although, sadly, most books not written in English never get translated, so we never get to read them). But there choice of books wasn’t to promote a nationalistic view of the world. They weren’t promoting patriotism. They were simply (if printing 1,000,000+ copies of a book can be described as simply) honoring a writer with a vision, a character that was hopelessly and foolishly kindhearted, blinded to reality by trying to help people at all personal costs, be it physical pain or embarrassment.

I don’t think this plan is all that practical, but I like it none the less for it’s impracticality. I don’t think every Venezuelan will read Don Quixote. I don’t think that matters. I like it that the government chose to honor an artist who has had a great influence on the world. That’s a pretty good idea, I think. I would love to see some sort of governmental recognition of the contributions that artists make to the way we think and see the world (I know they do a little, but nothing along the lines of the Venezuelan model). And I think it would be nice if we did so by possibly honoring writers from other countries even, maybe even writers that none of us have heard of before, that are from a different time and place — not so they would bash America, but so that we can see something written without an American perspective. I know I have an unwavering faith in the ability of writers to shape the world at least a little bit, so I trust you’ll forgive my romantic view of things. It must be the Don Quixote in me.

If anyone runs across one of these copies of Don Quixote, by the way, I’d love to have one. I’d even pay for it and everything.

I’m currently reading: The Last American Man, by Elizabeth Gilbert. History of the Surrealist Movement, by Gerard Durozoi. Le Morte D’Arthur, by Malory. Lucky, by Alice Sebold.

16 Responses to “Or Take Venezuela as Your Paradigm of Hope”

  1. Michael Lasley Says:

    I’d like to just go ahead and head off any critiques of my spelling. I realize I used “there” when I should have used “their.” I do that a lot. Apologies.

  2. wednesday Says:

    Such trivialities are neither hear nor they’re, in my opinion.

  3. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Too me, there very impotent.

  4. Coach Says:

    If I had a dime for every time I did take Venzuela as my paradigm of hope…

  5. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Interesting stuff. I have a hard time imagining the current powers that be choosing to distribute any novel to Americans, even if it wouldn’t cost the government a dime.

  6. Joe Longhorn Says:

    I get it! Cuz the current administration doesn’t even know how to read, right!?? Ha ha ha… that was a good one.

    Or… maybe they realize that something like this is a huge waste of government funds.

  7. juvenal_urbino Says:

    You should be in the Olympics, Joe. You’d bring home the gold in both the Unwarranted Conclusion Jump and the Hypersensitive Kneejerk.

    What I meant is that conservative politicians generally have little use for the arts. They consider it a bastion of wild liberalism. So it’s hard to imagine a conservative administration (any conservative administration) encouraging people to read literary fiction.

  8. Michael Lasley Says:

    For the record (and I realize you were responding to Juvenal, Joe), I did say that I did not want our government to spend money printing and handing out copies of any books. I did say that I wish our government would in some way give more in the way of props to people in the arts who have done some things that have changed the way people view the world — or who have made people think differently about things — or something like that. Often is the case where the arts are way ahead of the times as far as vision and direction and how to think differently about the way we live our lives. I think it’d be a waste of our government’s money, too, if they printed lots of books to give out to people. It’d cost nothing, though, to honor someone a bit and maybe, like, encourage people to read or whatever (look up a painting or sculpture or listen to a composer) a specific individual’s specific work. I don’t think that’d be a waste of money or much government time whatsoever.

    And I’m hurt — nay — wounded (Wounded, I say!) that none of our readers in Venezuela have found me a copy of this book yet.


  9. Joe Longhorn Says:

    Ok, ok… I apologize for the trollish response earlier. I knew that’s not what you meant, JU. I just don’t see any administration, be it liberal or conservative, trying to do something like this. Singling out the Bush administration on this issue seemed unwarranted to me.

    As far as the government recognizing individuals for artisitic contributions, check out the Kennedy Center Honors. The government provides funding for the building to operate as a presidential memorial and Presidents (yes, even this one) attend the awards ceremonies. But… most of the funding for this comes from patronage either through ticket sales for performances or private contributions and grants.

    I’m not a big fan of the NEA because they hand out grants in a pretty willy-nilly fashion (not to mention that I believe that truly good art will support itself!), but check out the National Medal of Arts. It seems to me that we do recognize significant artistic contributions. It’s not the government’s fault that most of the population just doesn’t care.

  10. Joe Longhorn Says:

    Oops. Messed up the link to the National Medal of Arts in my previous post.

  11. juvenal_urbino Says:

    “I just don’t see any administration, be it liberal or conservative, trying to do something like this.”

    Neither do I, now that you mention it, but for different reasons — and, as I said before, I’m assuming for purposes of argument that the cost would be nihil. Even assuming that, conservative admins wouldn’t do it for the reason I mentioned above. Liberal admins wouldn’t do it because it would be too politically risky — too difficult to come up with a novel that’s both worth reading, and nobody would get offended over.

    If they suggested Don Quixote, somebody would complain that it makes Hispanics look bad. If they suggested Elmer Gantry, somebody would complain that it makes religious people look bad. If they suggested To Kill a Mockingbird, somebody would complain that it makes Southern people look bad, and glorifies lawyers and single-parent families.

    So I guess my original point was just that I can’t imagine the current admin ever giving the citizens a novel, even if it were free, because [social] conservatives generally just don’t believe in the arts as being terribly worthwhile.

  12. Coolhand Says:

    As a social conservative who likes art, I’d recommend Walden, but I realize that’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

  13. juvenal_urbino Says:

    And it isn’t fiction.

  14. Michael Lasley Says:

    Thanks for the link, Joe. I do think that is a good thing. I don’t think it’s nearly as bold as what Venezuela did, but, as you said, it’s no one’s fault if people don’t pay attention. And I think JU is right that it wouldn’t matter what book or writer was chosen, it would probably be more politically costly for the politician than helpful. (Which is one of the reasons I thought choosing an author from a different place or time that wouldn’t focus on America, necessarily, might be a good thing). I’m not sure if the lack of attention to the awards Joe pointed out is a media problem (I mean, a medal to Ray Bradbury isn’t nearly as interesting [or important] as a lot of other things going on) or if people in general just don’t care about the arts.

  15. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Adding one to my list, if a politician suggested handing out copies of Gravity’s Rainbow, somebody would complain that it’s . . . um . . . let’s see . . . uh . . . I know! unconscionably long! . . . and . . . er . . . doesn’t make any *$&*#-ing sense!

  16. juvenal_urbino Says:

    And that person would be me.

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