2015 PEN Literary Gala: Markus Dohle
Publisher Honoree and Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle delivered these remarks at the 2015 PEN Literary Gala.
What an awe-inspiring setting for this important evening. Thank you for this honor. I never come to the Museum of Natural History without visiting this room. At a time when we feel like we know it all, when we can Google search to the ends of the digital earth, and our own personal universe is at our fingertips, it’s humbling to consider just what we are a part of. Here, beneath a ten-ton fiberglass whale, and surrounded by a millennia of our history, I’m reminded that there is always so much more to learn and understand—including about physics, since I don’t really know how that thing actually stays up there. In our globalized information age, the entire world feels within our grasp—and it is, technically. With a touch or a click, we can look up anything. So common sense shares, blocks and pens, the digital era has produced a new participatory culture. But the shadow of digitalization is that it can narrow our vision and scope. Digitalization makes it easier for those with strong opinions to construct like-minded networks of their own ideologies and drown out dissenting voices. In that noise, even each of us in this room can tell ourselves that we are listening when in fact we hear nothing. It requires a deliberate decision to investigate and actually connect across ideologies and cultures.
Growing up in 1970s Germany, it was instilled in me at a very young age how important it is to learn from history and other cultures. Around our family dinner table my mother urged my brother and me over and over: “Make the choice to be curious.” She encouraged us to explore the larger world around us and whetted an appetite for understanding that we fed with literature. When I wasn’t playing outside, I was sprawled out on the forest green shag rug of my grandparents’ living room, lying between stacks of books. There I encountered ideas and perspectives that both supported and challenged my own. Through books, I learned to empathize and identify with the world beyond my hometown. In so doing, I realized that I too was part of a global community. To express ourselves, and connect with others is a human need and a human right. And there are many many stories and ideas that cannot be expressed in 140 characters or less. Between creative voices and curious minds, publishers are an unmatched conduit. As publishers, it is our job to ensure that diverse, vital voices get the platform and audiences they deserve. Through publishing robust, uninhibited texts, we can promote the dialogue necessary to make truly free expression and understanding the standard.
At Penguin Random House we support bringing to life and bringing to light the stories, opinions, and ideas that can awaken a reader’s desire and ability to see things from a different perspective. By making our content available in more than 100 countries and using the opportunities that come with digitalization, we are extending literature’s reach to more readers than ever before. In any format, books are not just another package of data bouncing around the planet. Long-form reading immerses us in narratives that can cut through predispositions and spur cultural dialogue on a far deeper level. As a boy, one of my favorite books to read on that green rug was The Little Prince. There is a scene after the journeying prince arrives on Earth, when, to cure his loneliness, he climbs a mountain, certain that he will be able to see everyone on the planet. At the top, he yells out, but only his own voice calls back to him. He tries to befriend the voice, but it’s just an echo, and continues to repeat what he said. The dismayed prince walks away, dejected by this planet where he can hear nothing but himself. Can you imagine a world dominated by a single voice? Thankfully we don’t have to. In PEN we have an unwavering partner in that crucial mission to preserve the diversity, availability, and culture of books. At a time of extraordinary challenges to free expression, there is an increasing importance and necessity for their work. We are proud to join with PEN in celebration of writers at the PEN World Voices Festival and in support of all perspectives, no matter who or what may try to silence them or drown them out with echoes. Together we can create a world in which any voice can sound and won’t fall on deaf ears. A world where we choose curiosity unbound by the false sense of emissions we get from living in the digital age. Ted Sorenson, speech writer for JFK, once remarked that it was no coincidence than in Latin, “liber” means both “book” and “free.” Through books, we can bring greater freedom to both the individual and our global society. Books can set us free. Thank you.
Read the rest of the remarks made at the 2015 PEN Literary Gala here.
2015 PEN Gala
• The Ceremony
• Khadija Ismayilova, 2015 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award
• Tom Stoppard, 2015 PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award
• Charlie Hebdo, 2015 PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award
• Markus Dohle, 2015 PEN Publisher Honoree