International book fairs cause unexpected international controversy

A week from today Paris opens its international Book Fair. A usually low-key affair, Paris’s book fair this year joins with Turin’s International Book Fair in storming newspaper headlines with their choice to honor Israeli writers. In response, several Arab countries, including Lebanon and Iran, are boycotting the fairs.

It’s a pity that an event meant to celebrate international literature of all kinds is overshadowed by politics. Some might say the personal is always political (and they might be right), but in this case it does seem to be counter-productive to confuse a country’s writers with its government’s policies. Amos Oz, for example, who is one of the authors being honored, can’t help being Israeli. Like any good writer, he writes what he knows and does it well. He is also one of the world’s most outspoken critics of the Israeli government’s policies and has been an advocate of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict since 1967. His 2003 memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read, and every page speaks of the author’s sincerity, intelligence, and insight; and makes it clear that growing up in Israel nurtured Oz’s rare sympathy with the Palestinian people.

In every age literature has served to teach people that the world is infinitely complex, just as politicians always seek to convince them that there is a glib, tidily packaged answer to every problem of life. Amos Oz and many of the other writers being honored at this year’s book fairs understand that there are no easy answers to the world’s problems, any more than there are easy definitions of people and their beliefs.

Politicians like to tell us that everything wrong in one’s society is Someone Else’s fault, that Someone usually being of a different color, language, or religion. Writers find myriad ways to illustrate an opposing truth: that our problems lie in ourselves and how we view the world. It would be nice, but unexpected, if people of all stripes could learn to tell the difference.

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