Word! The Language Column

Illustration: two speech bubbles above a book
A verb gives a name to an action | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

In his capacity as director of the Literaturhaus in Frankfurt, our new columnist, Hauke Hückstädt, deals with the culture industry every day. So he knows the book trade is forever exhorting everyone to read away. But how many books on the market are really accessible to the millions of people who have difficulty reading?

By Hauke Hückstädt

You’re on a group outing. A day trip. The sun is overhead, its heat beating down on you. The group comes to a stop before a pond. Someone hollers, “Let's go for a swim!” And before you know it, they’re all tearing off their clothes. But not you. You’ve never learned how to swim. Or maybe you have a colostomy. Or you just don't want to get naked in front of all these people. Your body doesn't feel like communicating today. So you just stand there while everyone’s urging you into the water. They’re all so boisterous and self-assured. Some of them are splashing you with water now. It sure would be nice to be as slaphappy as they are. But you can't. So now there’s a crack in your day. The light is crumbling. You’re out of the picture. So much for the group thing. Or maybe it was just the wrong group. Maybe.

They don’t mean you

If you’ve never experienced exactly that situation, you’ve certainly been through something similar. We've all been on the outside looking in at some point in our lives. My first day as an artist-in-residence in Nanjing, for example, I felt lonely there in the city on the Yangtze. I certainly didn’t feel included or in a happy-go-lucky globetrotting mood. So it doesn’t necessarily hurt. But that sense of being excluded creeps inside you and can last your whole life long. You can’t experience that sense of being left out from inside. Roughly fifteen million people in Germany alone can’t read very well. They’re all left out. When a book fair advertises with a slogan like “All together now!” these people don't feel that includes them. A trade campaign like “Jetzt ein Buch!” (“And now for a book!”) doesn’t reach them. Reading and books are not a “natural part” of their everyday lives. They’re gobsmacked when one hallowed old publisher or another is hailed as an intellectual cornerstone of our republic. Because that publisher’s list has probably never included a single book for them. Not a single book that meets them halfway. And this makes them feel so much less at home in our intellectual republic, our fortress.

No books for them

Our language is the laboratory of our future. With 26 moving parts. What we read today and how we speak today will determine our decisions the day after tomorrow. The alphabet can reach places television can't. This is an important point. And a promising one. But it’s also the overworked credo of a trade that eloquently bemoans everything that happens. The irresponsible cancellation of a book fair today, recklessly green-lighting a book fair tomorrow. The loss of readers yesterday, those dreadful Netflix series the day before yesterday. And always those cutthroat competitors, the greedy bookstore chains and despicable mail-order booksellers that are killing off one independent bookshop after another – unbearable. Not to mention the general dumbing-down of modern-day society. Publishers bewail everything under the sun – everything, that is, except the fate of millions of potential customers with reading difficulties. The industry and its leading trade publishers still have hardly a thing to offer them. How can this be? Why so unimaginative? What happened to their enterprising spirit, their business acumen? So much mediocrity? And yet they’re all slapping slogans on burlap bags exhorting everyone under the sun to dive into a book.