In response to:
Books as Vodka from the May 31, 1979 issue
To the Editors:
I laughed right out loud when I read the title of Lev Lifshitz-Losev’s article “Books as Vodka” in your May 31 issue…. Also, it’s hilarious that a country covered by great forests should have a paper shortage, as it is for countries like the United States which was a net oil-exporter for almost two hundred years (slight exaggeration) to have a gas shortage in May when home consumption of oil is negligible and summer touring hasn’t begun. Also, regarding public drunkenness in the USSR, recall W.C. Fields’ famous admission, “[we] have been known to take a drink or two.” But I must disagree with L3 when he implies that Soviet books “are published unattractively, in dingy colors, with unexpressive and monotonous typeface, and are sloppily bound.”
To wit: My algebra: Ring Modules and Categories (Volume 1) was lovingly (I hesitate to say faithfully) translated by a team headed by L.A. Skornyakov (whom I fervently hope is not anti-Semitic!), and beautifully printed in a truly beautiful typeface on high-quality paper, and clothbound in a cream or beige color. In many respects, notably the design of the book (smaller and lighter) and typeface (denser), it was superior to the original edition published by the world’s leading publisher of mathematics books (Springer-Verlag) in the world’s leading country for beautiful books (remember Gutenberg?), and its subsidized price is 3R.10K.
Let me hasten to say that Springer did his usual superior job on volume two in a flawless production. Undoubtedly L3 was referring exclusively to literary, not scientific, books.
Department of Mathematics
New Brunswick, New Jersey
P.S. It just struck me that since the good old days of “Uncle Joe” and “Winnie,” how few kind things one thinks or reads about that great nation of some 250,000,000 persons. Let’s face it—most US books look ready for the ash-can as soon as they are published.
Lev Lifshitz-Losev replies:
I cannot agree with Mr. Faith’s remarks, especially those in his postscript.
(1) I think it is true that 90 percent of books in the American book market are literary schlock. But this is relatively harmless schlock, from the same stock of supermarket goodies as sugar-free candy or chewing gum: refreshing, hygienic, loved by kids and infantile adults and just a little bit suspect on grounds of carcinogenicity. But our dear Soviet literary schlock is not that innocent: it represents either the militant propaganda of antihumanism, or a senseless waste of material resources, energy, and labor.
To compare any political and cultural manifestations of such different societies as the American and Soviet ones is very wrong. It is a pity that many American intellectuals are eager to do so. As Joseph Brodsky put it, “they [Americans] think that to equate a drowning person to a seasick one means justice and impartiality.”
(2) I disagree that few kind things are being published about my country. On the contrary, almost any writing critical of the Soviet regime is, at the same time, a eulogy for the courage, fortitude, and struggle to survive culturally of those people who actively or passively resist the regime.
To make no distinction between the police state and the variety of peoples oppressed by it is another commonly mistaken approach. (To be sure, books praising the Soviet government and the Communist Party are not in short supply; unlimited quantities of copies are available at the Soviet embassy, Washington, DC, free of charge.)
(3) Possibly Mr. Faith’s Soviet-published algebra is attractive and easy to read. A number of books are published decently there: 5 percent? 1 percent? But stop by the Four Continent Book Store (149 Fifth Ave., NY); they handle Soviet books there. You will see that, wonderful as those books are in terms of their contents or, sometimes, their artistic design, the colors are muddy, the bindings are shabby, the paper is lousy.
July 19, 1979