Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
(*Update 1/25, 11:18 AM: Faced with pressure from the German government and unable to afford a legal battle with the Bavarian state, McGee has backed down and will be graying out the Mein Kampf supplements in Zeitungszeugen, leaving only the accompanying commentary visible.)
While writing about the publishing singularity last week, I found myself wondering—in the digital age, do books still really matter? Will the convergence of different forms of media have the ultimate effect of diluting book potency, corroding the patina of authority that has surrounded books for so long?
That day might come, but it definitely hasn’t even breached the horizon yet—at least not in Germany. Before coming across this article, I had no idea that Mein Kampf was still banned in Germany, except for the limited purpose of academic study. Don’t get me wrong here; I know we’re talking about an atrocity of a book, a manifesto of the human capacity for evil. But the idea that a book could still be illegal in the information age seriously rattled my paradigms.
What does that even mean, illegal? How would the state go about policing the distribution of ebook versions of Mein Kampf? Do German citizens reading it on their ereaders get snatched by roving censorship patrols and tossed into jail?
It may be made of Hitler hoodoo, but Mein Kampf is a book, not an arc of face-melting radiation à la Indiana Jones. Lending it a mysticized, forbidden-fruit quality strikes me as a bad idea.
Apparently, Peter McGee, head of the London-based publishing house Albertas Ltd., is of the same mind. Last week, McGee announced that he would be publishing sixteen-page excerpts of Mein Kampf along with critical commentary, with a print run of 100,000 each. The excerpts will be distributed as a supplement to the company’s weekly publication, a controversial series called Zeitungszeugen—Newspaper Witnesses—that reprints pages of Nazi newspapers from the 1920s and 30s.
“It is a sensitive subject in Germany but the incredible thing is most Germans don’t have access to Mein Kampf because it has this taboo, this ‘black magic’ surrounding it,” McGee said in a Reuters interview. “We want Mein Kampf to be accessible so people can see it for what it is, and then discard it. Once exposed, it can be consigned to the dustbin of literature.”
It probably also doesn’t hurt that the latest series of Newspaper Witnesses, released two weeks ago, has already sold 250,000 copies. But the commercial underpinnings of McGee’s motivations are less interesting to me than the stir this has kicked up in Germany. The state of Bavaria, which holds the copyright to Mein Kampf, has already threatened to sue Albertas in order to block publication, claiming that McGee’s republication will violate copyright. And while historians rejoice, Holocaust survivor groups are up in arms.
While I agree that the public should have access to Mein Kampf—if I’ve learned anything from Battlestar Galactica, other than essentially everything I know to be true about life, it’s that history shouldn’t be swept under the rug if you don’t want hordes of gorgeous platinum blondes descending upon your people and permanently messing your planetary junk up—it also simply makes me happy to see that books can still galvanize this sort of mayhem. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and books are still hot.
I also think that as the creation of enhanced ebooks becomes more of a true art form, rather than the manic fiddling with new technology that it currently is, “books” might begin to have even more impact than they already do.
Just this week, Orson & Co announced a new literary app: The Gilded Curve, based on author Richard Mason’s The Gilded Curve: History of a Pleasure Seeker, which is being released by Knopf in February in hardcover and ebook formats. The app will be available in April or May, and is being lauded by Mason as a “whole new artistic form” rather than an ebook. Featuring evocative music, interactive photographs and illustrations, audio of Downtown Abbey star Dan Stevens reading the text, and annotation capabilities, all at the reader’s disposal with the tap of a finger, these features sound like the best of what the ebook has to offer—enhanced rather than disrupted content, subject to the reader’s preference.
What might the impact of Mein Kampf have been, had the book been created in a format that combined the stirring power of music with visual stimuli, all meant to emphasize the effect of the written word?
Yeah. Books just got real.