Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 03 May 2018

Read The World : UNESCO's Global Book Policy & The Collection of Representative Works

Here’s something I didn’t know: between 1948 and 2005, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) ran what was effectively a ‘world book policy’ which had, at its centre, a programme of literary translation that is completely unparalleled by any other institution.

The idea was to translate masterpieces of literature written in minority languages into more internationally spoken languages like English or French. This resulted in making writing from places like Japan, China, the continent of Africa and even Eastern Europe available to much bigger audiences for the very first time.

The full list of books that were translated under this scheme is extensive and there are over a thousand titles that were commissioned over the lifetime of the project. Although the project has now closed as far as new translations are concerned, the full list is still available and makes for fascinating reading.

But UNESCO’s policy on books wasn’t simply confined to translation and opening up literary treasurers that were otherwise hidden from the mass of readers, primarily those in the Western sphere of influence. The organisation embraced bigger aims which have been described by the author Celine Gifon in this way:

“From what may be called a “French” position, the book was described as an emancipator, giving individual knowledge and stimulating greater reflexion. These qualities made the book an ideal support for dialogue and mutual understanding between peoples. Great books and writers played an important part in defining a common literary heritage.

A second discourse, more “Anglo-Saxon”, presented the book above all as a tool for educating people and encouraging economic development, leading to general well-being, and to be considered as well as a very useful support for communication.”

I have to say, I find myself more in sympathy with the so-called ‘French’ position that that ascribed to the Anglo-Saxon world view but I’m pretty happy to see the two yoked together.

What is clear from reading some of the research that has been done on this programme is that, in a way that was largely invisible to the ordinary reader, this UNESCO policy had a huge influence on book production and the world of publishing. By viewing the book as something more than an entertainment or a matter of individual taste, UNESCO saw books as crucial to the development of world peace, the spread of ideas and at the core of universal education.

According to Gifon, the UNESCO world book policy was pursued under a series of key headings:

“The projects took four main forms: normative action, preservation and valorization of worldwide literary heritage, encouragement of increased professionalism of people working in the book industry, and direct actions to promote books and reading.”

The scale and scope of these strategic goals are easy to see and amount to nothing less than a global development strategy with books as the key tool.

But, of course, there are always political conflicts that surround an initiative of this sort that not only crosses territorial boundaries but will inevitably come into conflict with specific ideologies that see the spread of books and reading as problematic. Others undoubtedly questioned the bureaucracy and cost of this work when other priorities are often more immediate and pressing for any government finding itself under duress.

And then, of course, there’s the issue of how you can successfully measure the impact of a programme such as this. Its objectives are huge and the timeframe is too daunting for any authoritative evaluation to take place and, in the end, you are forced back onto an impressionistic assessment.

Virginia Woolf, in her essay entitled How To Read A Book, makes the case that the impact of what we have read can take time to filter its way to the surface of our minds:

“The first process, to receive impressions with the utmost understanding, is only half the process of reading; it must be completed, if we are to get the whole pleasure from a book, by another. We must pass judgment upon these multitudinous impressions; we must make of these fleeting shapes one that is hard and lasting. But not directly. Wait for the dust of reading to settle; for the conflict and the questioning to die down; walk, talk, pull the dead petals from a rose, or fall asleep. Then suddenly without our willing it, for it is thus that Nature undertakes these transitions, the book will return, but differently. It will float to the top of the mind as a whole. And the book as a whole is different from the book received currently in separate phrases. Details now fit themselves into their places.”

And I suspect the same can be said for UNESCO’s world book strategy. Although it officially ended in 2005 I think it’s going to take quite a lot longer before we can really step back and try to make an assessment of its value or its influence.

What I can say is that I’m sorry not to have known about this project before now and to add that it fills me with a sort of optimistic pride that from the ashes of World War Two we were able to conceptualise such a daring and civilising concept as that represented by both the Collection of Representative Works and the wider world book policy. Let’s hope it’s not going to take another world war to put books back at the heart of our ideas about what makes a good world order.


Terry Potter

May 2018