Volume XXXIII: The Books We’ll Never Read
Cultural genocide, censorship, and inaccessibility
As we head into 2024, how can we readers ensure more accessibility and diversity in the stories being published? And why is this important for more than just book lovers and those in publishing?
[Dear readers: This issue contains discussion of genocide, white supremacy, the Holocaust, trans and homophobia, and more.]
Another Brooklyn; Poverty, by America; Writers & Lovers; Still Life; The Berry Pickers; Rivermouth; Horse Barbie: just a few of the amazing books we shared on ad astra this year. But as we reflect on the stories we’ve loved, engaging with end-of-year roundup posts or maybe even gifting our favorite reads to friends and family, what about all the books that we will never read?
We’re not referring to the fact that we will never have time to read as much as we’d like; rather, that there are so many stories out there that aren’t making their way to readers in the first place. Books that aren’t published. Stories that aren’t translated into, or out of, English. Books that are not made accessible to readers of all types, whether that be they aren’t on audio, ebook, etc. Books that are out of print, or “temporarily” out of stock. Books facing bans or soft censorship. Stories that are destroyed in acts of cultural genocide.
In today’s newsletter, we’re going to take a look at the ways stories throughout history and our present have been made inaccessible—and what readers can do to help more voices be heard.
A Deeper Look
Throughout history, the destruction of books has played a huge role in preventing access to knowledge—including for future societies. In May 1933 in Nazi Germany, 25,000 books by Jewish authors were burned. In August 1992, the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo burnt down after being bombed—and with it, irreplaceable texts dating back five hundred years. And in Palestine, we have just witnessed the destruction of Gaza’s main library.
“It was what he later testified to being ‘cultural heritage destruction’: intentional and unnecessary destruction of sites and records that act as a community’s collective memory,” notes a 2020 article in the Harvard Gazette. The “he” here refers to András Riedlmayer, a librarian who specializes on the August 1992 event. “The crime comes from a desire to not only kill individuals who are part of an ethnic or religious group, Riedlmayer explained, but to erase their existence, ‘remove any evidence that they were ever there to begin with, and give them no reason to come back.’”
But it’s not just through the physical destruction of books that they are made inaccessible. We see this every day, with book bans and challenges being passed in schools and libraries across the country (and beyond). 2023 was—yet again—the highest year on record in terms of book bans in the States. But despite knowing how to confront book bans and information being made widely accessible to help empower readers and parents, many have yet to get involved—including publishers. When these books are taken out of classrooms and libraries, or not made accessible in the first place, often it’s the children who need to see representation the most (especially LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC readers) who suffer the consequences.
Only a fraction of books published around the globe are translated into English, and those that are, tend to be from European and East Asian countries. In fact, just four books by women were translated from Arabic into English in 2022. How would individuals be viewing the ongoing genocide of Palestinians if more stories were translated from Palestinian Arabic into English? (Of course, such authors do not owe it to anyone to write about said genocide or acts of colonial settlerism and violence.)
Historically in western publishing, books by white, cishet authors have been published at rates that far outpace books by BIPOC, LGBTQIA2S+, and disabled authors. Not only is this because of gatekeeping in the industry, but also because most employees in publishing tend to be white, especially in places of power. It’s the same for review outlets, too, who not only review these books, but help drive awareness and sales. (And if authors aren’t receiving marketing help from their publishers, their careers can easily be cut short due to lack of bandwidth or living wage.)
And, of course, even when books are translated or books by authors from historically excluded identities are published, that does not mean we can always find their stories in stock at our bookstores and libraries, or that they’re easy to order.
We can’t forget to mention accessibility. Not everyone is able to read physical books. Audiobooks and ebooks can play a huge role in making reading more accessible and therefore contribute to the spread of information and knowledge. Yet only a fraction of books are on audio, and with Amazon dominating the ebook and audiobook markets, only so many alternative, ethical options exist.
Ways to Respond
However, just as there are numerous ways individuals throughout history have actively worked to make books disappear or inaccessible, there are plenty of actions readers can take every day to ensure the opposite.
Request books from libraries and bookstores when you don’t see them in stock. Not only does this show booksellers and librarians that a certain book/genre/author is in demand, but also shows publishers the same, encouraging them both to invest more in these stories.
When finding books to read and even review, don’t just pick the books on the front of news outlets or those with flashy influencer campaigns. These stories are already receiving investment from publishers; instead, look for books that don’t appear to be receiving the same marketing attention—both backlist and frontlist.
Follow content creators that read a diverse range of stories.
Ask your librarian or bookseller for recommendations.
Follow new authors online, read their books, and see who they’re reading.
Fight against book bans and challenges by playing an active role in your community’s public school system, and by telling your political reps you support bills such as the Fight Book Bans Act and the Books Save Lives Act.
Support publishing unions. These unions ensure liveable wages and other forms of equitable compensation, meaning more individuals from a diverse range of backgrounds are able to consider careers in publishing.
If you see them striking on social media, or demanding more from their publishers, amplify their posts and look into other ways to get involved.
Support independent alternatives instead of Amazon (including Amazon-owned companies, such as Goodreads, Audible, etc.). Amazon not only impacts indie bookstores—which are invaluable spaces for knowledge—but their dominance over the market can impact which books are (and aren’t) published.
Join in on social media campaigns, readathons, etc. that aim to raise awareness of often underrepresented stories, such as Women in Translation Month.
An oldie, but a helpful reminder that when we talk about audiobooks, we’re talking about reading.
Our voices matter. As readers, we drive book sales. And we not only can have a huge impact on ensuring more stories are published and made widely accessible, but how that widespread availability of knowledge impacts our society. When more modes of thought, solutions, histories, and/or perspectives are shared, especially those beyond westernized stories, we’re able to think more critically. We can advance a future that doesn’t default on the excuse of “it’s complicated.”
We’ll be back in a few weeks with a deep dive into a recent read. In the meantime, make sure to check out our free downloads (wallpapers, templates, and more), and our exclusive downloads for newsletter subscribers (with password newsletterdownloads). If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, don’t hesitate to get in touch via email, the comments below, or Instagram DM.