PARIS — We French love our rentrée littéraire. But with the launch of this year's new literary season, dedicated in part to the memory of our American World War II allies, a new war is erupting. And the alliances seem to be changing. U.S.-based Trojan horse Amazon started the fight by targeting major French publisher Hachette in its battle to lower the price of e-books.
Strangely enough, as French publishers hope the new season will compensate for abysmal sales figures so far this year, the fight for literary prizes seems to be creating more passion in France than the power struggle between the two giants. Nine hundred American writers and 1,000 German authors have signed a petition to support Hachette, and publishers in Japan are also starting to react. But in France, for now at least, authors and publishers alike have remained relatively silent on the matter.
Amazon's offensive against Hachette — in which the online giant is basically trying to lowball Hachette on pricing, and strong-arm in distribution contract negotiations — once more poses the question of how important literature is in our societies, whether in printed or digital form. Just what's at stake for books, both aesthetically and politically, in a world dominated by screens and feeds, where algorithms, busy lives and the commercialization of exchanges are ever more present?
These three symptoms characterize Amazon, a fascinating titan that harvests the planet and is now asking Hachette, and soon all publishers, to make unfair sacrifices. The company led by Jeff Bezos enjoys an almost perfect monopoly in the world of online bookstores.
A bookstore in Auvers-sur-Oise — Photo: Alexandre Duret-Lutz
But despite its liberal and libertarian posture, its commercial practices suggest it is more totalitarian than anything else: "My beautiful customer, you'll always be the one who wins, with ever lower prices." It tries to distort Orwell quotes to its advantage, but at the end of the day, Amazon is the real "Big Brother" that is "watching you."
And in this bullfight, Europe contents itself with doing nothing more than throwing some ornamental darts, as France’s former Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti complained. She has been replaced in the new cabinet reshuffling by Fleur Pellerin, someone who has long been won over by the digital economy.
The French digital divide
For the past two years, France has seen an unprecedented number of bookstores close. In 2013, Virgin went bust. This year, another chain, Chapitre, closed 57 of its stores. The book market is losing 2% to 3% every year. Online stores represent about 12% of the market, but their dynamic growth has slowed down for the first time in France.
As for e-books, their share in the revenues of French publishers is only 1%. Surprisingly, the e-book has yet to be embraced in France. The reason for this is often kept quiet. The primary French publishers, including Hachette, are also distributors, acting as the middlemen between retailers and publishers for the sale and transport of books.
Therefore, to develop the digital offer is to kill the middlemen and, eventually, French bookstores. No other country has as many independent retailers, free from all ties to any group and able to display and sell the books they want. This exceptional network is the first form of internal resistance to the Amazon invader.
Thanks to the law that ensures a fixed price for every new book and limits possible discounts, as well as to the open-mindedness of operators, this network of independent stores has managed to oppose the anxiety-provoking economic environment — with the joy that books bring to the people. After all, old Europe is the birthplace of Dante, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Montaigne, Goethe, and many others.
And Racine — Photo: Sharat Ganapati
The crisis that now threatens to hit publishers is the same one that is shaking European humanism, this ideal of balance and harmony that made us who we are. The regions where bookstores are closing, especially in the north and east of France, have become wastelands where extremist ideas thrive more easily than anywhere else.
Bookstores are the spirit of civilization, a place where ideas are put to the test, where conversation, courtesy and even quarrels allow us to rise. That is why there is a political issue behind the future of books. Our elected representatives must do what it takes to put the book back at the center of our societies, even though a demanding real world and an intrusive virtual one often put us off it.
When bookstores disappear, intelligence, curiosity and the democracy of ideas wither. Public broadcasters and politicians who are hooked on 24-hour news networks have forgotten that they are the ones who must pull the world towards intelligence and sensitivity to thwart the destructive and reactionary forces that surround us.
This goes beyond the dangerous liaisons between Amazon and publishers, and beyond the new literary season. We must fight barbarism with the sword of mythology: books. A whole lot of books, here and everywhere, and right now, is what we need against the moral and intellectual crisis that is dividing our country.
With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.
When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.
And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.
Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan
The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan
According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.
In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.
The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.
Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.
View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA
Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!
The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.
Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.
Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain
Old Belchite, Spain
Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…
That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.
Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.
If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.
Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan
Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.
The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.
Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."
Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.
Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden
The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden
After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).
Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.
Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia
Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia
During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.
Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.
Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy
Poveglia Island, Italy
Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).
During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.
In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.
Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.
- From Beirut To Baghdad, Syria's Spillover Is Redrawing The Middle ... ›
- Tamales To Gonorrhea: How Violence Shaped Colombian Spanish ... ›
- Destination Chernobyl? Radioactivity, Jobs And Tourism ... ›