Before the police arrives: Bookstores on Saturdays

Before the police arrives: Bookstores on Saturdays

Branko Milanovic on the joys of bookstores.

I always loved Saturdays. When I was a college student, quite improbably my parents decided that I would be a “technical executor” of our family’s monthly budget. My family was part of the red bourgeoisie and we had enough, and probably more than enough,  for a comfortable life, the life that today’s middle classes might find  constrained and limited in income but attractive because of its security. What it meant was an apartment of 67 square meters, two bedrooms, enough money to go on a modest vacation once per year, very little money to travel abroad (because prices in Western Europe were a multiple of these in Yugoslavia, and one night in a hotel would cost a half of one’s salary), and enough to go to a restaurant once in a fortnight.

But enough –and this is key for the story—to allocate  every month a small amount for the purchase of books. I argued for it and won easily because my father loved reading. And he was entirely indifferent to money, that is, he would be equally happy if we had one-half of what we had, so long as there was enough to eat, drink and read. The monthly amount dedicated to books would be nicely stashed in an envelope, with the writing on the top “Knjige” (“Books”) and I would “execute” the purchase. I was allowed to buy whatever I wanted.

Having an earmarked fixed amount, I wanted to maximize pleasure from it. That meant that, if I had money to buy two or three books every month, I would go out every Saturday with an express intention to buy only one book. Never two. For if I bought two books on this Saturday, there will be no money to buy a book next Saturday. (I remember how many years later, In a bookstore in Georgetown, in Washington, I saw for the first time a person buying books by piling them in a cart the way one buys potatoes or bananas in a supermarket. That struck me as entirely disrespectful of writers. I would not like my books to be bought in such a way.)

I was lucky to have been young (assuming that I would be always growing up in the Balkans) at that time because that part of peripheral Europe was then living through what was its most intellectually interesting time—ever.  Thanks to Marxism it had direct connection to the modern Western intellectual thought; in addition, that very Marxism was  technically applied in the country which made writers from that country interesting in the eyes of the intellectual West (the West was always the paragon) as well as of the rest of the world. And Yugoslavia, indeed, through its Praxis school, produced a series of excellent political philosophers and Marxist scholars.* Freedom from Stalinist constraint, or even an official encouragement to publish as much  anti-Stalinist, but Marxist and Leninist, literature, added to the excitement. You could read everything about the “deformations” in the Soviet Union except for Trotsky. He remained, never officially spoken of, but unacceptable. Other Trotskyists were published (Antonov-Ovseyenko, Victor Serge, Isaac Deutscher), but not the Master himself, even in his purely literary or journalistic writings.

Not least importantly, these were the 1970s when Yugoslavia borrowed heavily from the West, foreign exchange was plentiful, and that made imports of English-printed books available to whoever was interested in intellectual or political topics, and read English. When I recently reread my old books as I was writing Visions of Inequality  I was not surprised that many of them were bought in Belgrade in the mid-seventies, as tiny pencil-written notes, showing the price in dinars, inside the cover-page attest (“15,70 dinars” in pencil and a strong curling “,” which, I would wager, was in a woman’s handwriting).

Thus, on Saturdays, armed also by the book reviews that I would have read the week or month before, I would go from one bookstore to another looking at what may be the best book to buy. I would weigh the advantages and disadvantages of this or that writer, the likelihood that I would prefer to read fiction to nonfiction—but never include in that weighting scheme my college interests. Studying to get a grade was always an entirely different matter, not at the slightest entering my decisions about what to read. I still believe this approach is good.

I read quite a lot about the Stalinist period. In high-school in Belgium I discovered Roy and Zhores Medvedev. I still love their books. In many ways, I think they are the most unbiased witnesses, and students of Stalinism. My French teacher in Belgium introduced me to William Shirer.  After reading him, I branched out to the rest of literature on Nazism and Europe in the 1930s.

Solzhenitsyn was widely published in Yugoslavia (although I think that his “Gulag Archipelago” was not immediately published because of his attacks on Lenin, nor was his “Lenin in Zurich”). The rest however was. A Yugoslav communist who was imprisoned for twenty years in the Gulag also published his memoirs around the same time: Karlo Stajner: 7,000 dana u Sibiru (“7,000 days in Siberia”). I still have his book. I went to his book talk one cold winter night in Belgrade.

The publication of Leszek Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism provoked, as I learned from the literary weekly and a friend, quite a commotion. Eventually, it was published with a lengthy preface by one of the Party ideologues drawing a distinction between Lenin and Stalin and criticizing Kolakowski for not doing so sufficiently.

The books one could not buy were by Djilas. The first Djilas’s book that I read were all in English, and to this day I never read him in the original. He was published in Serbian only when the “populist-nationalist” government of Slobodan Milosevic came to power. But by then nobody cared about Djilas.  The new class had disappeared.

I was entirely indifferent to the nationalist literature  that started to flourish under the permissive, and relatively rich, atmosphere of the late 1970s. It might have been a wrong decision, because that literature (most of it, I thought then and now, composed of elementary thinking and counter-truths) became much more influential in the Balkans and all over Eastern Europe. It probably is still today, reawakened by the war between Ukraine and Russia. I saw specimens of such nonsensical literature in every East European country I travelled to after it “acceded” to democracy.

On my travels to England, I loved to go to the enchanting London bookstores. There would be—extraordinarily—several floors of books. In 1973,  I saw in the Foyles bookstore exposed all over the place and very prominently in the windows, the first English translation of Grundrisse (done beautifully by Martin Nicolaus). I did not know about the existence of Grundrisse at all. I was totally shocked to see Marx’s book so openly displayed in the heart of the capitalist world. I had already read him, and I thought that whoever had read him would immediately have to abandon the allegiance to capitalism. I was thus half-expecting the police to show up at the Foyles, and if not seize all  the books, at least put them back on the shelves. But that did not happen. In fact I freely bought my copy of Grundrisse, and almost half a century later when writing Visions of Inequality, I went over my notes, the unstuck and falling out yellowed pages, and remembered the urgency with which I then grabbed  the book—before the police arrives. 



This first appeared on Branko's blog.

Photo by Guilherme Rossi

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