It’s practically blasphemous in our society to question the value of book distribution. It’s not supposed to depreciate, ever. Yet question we must because the world is changing.
Perhaps the easiest argument against book distribution is that no one read books anymore, but it’s only half right. People do read books when they want to learn something important, it’s just they’d rather waste their lives ogling someone else’s food instead. They need our books for those rare moments when they realize there’s life outside their mobile phone screens.
They need our books as a safety cushion, something they can always fall back on when their virtual lives don’t pan out. Accusing phone addicts of not having a life is easy but not helpful. They do value their off-screen lives and they do value relationships and “values”, it’s just that Kali Yuga is too strong and it locks them into their gadgets for longer time than we expect.
They are not stupid either and they get as much out of their lives and people in them in a few seconds they spare for their interactions as we do in hours. They are more efficient then us even if less attentive. I bet they catch a lot of stuff in our books that took us multiple readings to notice, too.
Not all are that smart, of course, the majority are certifiable retards, but it’s the smart ones that we should focus on anyway because they set the standards for everyone else. If they like out books and our ideas they can spread them to thousands and millions in a few keystrokes, a lot faster than if we did it ourselves.
So books still need to be distributed, just probably not to everybody and not at any cost. Yuga dharma for this age is harināma saṅkīrtana, loud chanting of the holy names, not studying books. We can’t say out job is done unless we get people to chant and simply handing them a book doesn’t insure that. Perhaps the best idea is to have book distributors accompany harināma parties so that books complement chanting. We don’t need to give everyone a full set of Bhāgavatam, too. Perhaps a small flyer would be a lot more effective to get people to chant the mahāmantra.
I don’t know if it ever happens but I think lots of people would rather reply with “I’ll wait for a movie” when we offer them an eight hundred pages Bhagavad Gīta and we can’t argue with that. It’s our duty to make our books presentable to them, we can’t blame them for our failure to catch their attention.
There’s another argument against eternity of book distribution – it isn’t eternal. It had a beginning and therefore it must have an end. I mean there was time when there were no such thing as books and there will be time when the half the universe will be flooded and books don’t do well in water.
We convinced ourselves that at least in out time frame book distribution is eternal but it isn’t. Importance of book distribution occurred to Śrīla Prabhupāda when he saw how successful it was, how he could reach millions and millions of people. Originally he concerned himself only with translating and writing purports and reaching professors and other VIPs. He had no idea that he would have thousands and thousands disciples who could put Bhagavad Gīta practically in every home. It had become evident only by the mid-seventies.
We think that importance of printing books is self-evident but the fact is that among thousands of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī’s disciples only Śrīla Prabhupāda took it very seriously. The rest of them, big big names, big big scholars, big big preachers, had no idea and exploited the old formula from GM’s heydays.
What makes us think that someone in ISKCON won’t suddenly stumble on an effective method of preaching suitable for the modern Internet age? It took decades for GM to recognize that printing books in English was a very good idea, I think it’s safe to assume that we might be just as conservative about someone’s innovations in ISKCON, too.
The person who does it successfully would have to become an ācārya, of course, but then how many GM devotees thought that Śrīla Prabhupāda was one? How long did it take them to recognize him? I think it’s safe to assume that we’d react in a similar fashion.
It’s also worth nothing that while even Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura had a printing press and Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī continued printing more than ever, they didn’t print that many books. Mostly it was magazines and newspapers in different languages. In modern day it would be an equivalent of a blog where one takes up the issues of the day and presents them from a certain perspective.
This kind of format will never get old even as blogs transformed into Facebook statuses, tweets, and Instagram photos. The idea is still the same – to spread one’s comments on the issues of the day.
We, ISKCON, do not have a vehicle for that. We have websites, we have twitter accounts, we have blogs, but we still have no idea how to reach the general population and we mostly communicate with our devotees. If someone figures out how to do that on whatever platform that reaches millions and millions of people would be qualified as the next ācārya.
I hope Lord Caitanya already has something in mind but He is waiting for the right moment or for the right platform or for the society to reach a certain level of maturity.
Our books are supposed to yank people out of their miserable lives. We offer something that people can immediately drop all their plans for. To appreciate that, however, people must be ready. Vietnam war era was perfect, post-USSR era was perfect, perhaps we need to wait for the time when mobile Internet stops being a novelty and people would want something more than moving pixels on their screens.
Sorry to say that, but dissatisfaction and disillusionment are the best ambiance for our preaching. At this point people are still to absorbed in technicalities of their mobile interactions. They are still fascinated by apps, text speak, ability to share photos and Vine videos etc. We need them to get bored of that stuff first.
I might be wrong about this but to me it looks like a good explanation why we haven’t had an Internet breakthrough in preaching yet. At first we thought that Internet was going online with your computer, now we found out that phones are just as good for that, and also tablets, maybe there will be another one or two mediums before people settle down and become ready to listen to our presentations about the Absolute Truth. Perhaps our Internet use is only in its infancy and preaching would resume once the society grows up to at least grade school level.
We just have to be patient, Lord Caitanya knows what He is doing. When the time is right He can enable any one of us in a split second.
We should also remember that it was forty years between departure of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta and ISKCON finally supplanting Gauḍīyā Maṭhas as prime preaching institution, we are not that far behind, considering the scope of change in people’s interactions with each other that we are waiting to settle down.
The most striking argument concerning eternity of book distribution for me, however, was from a totally different area – I am all for book distribution being eternal but I’d rather get born again and again to relive the best moments of it in each and every universe rather than to see it dragged out until the end of Kali Yuga.