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The `Value Added' Of the Written Word

IN recent weeks, an ominous sign has been appearing in bookstore windows here. "Don't Tax Reading!" it says, half-warning, half-pleading. "Keep VAT off books."

Inside the bookstores, small flyers stacked near cash registers repeat the message, urging customers to write to members of Parliament and newspapers in protest.

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The flyers list the dire consequences that could result if the nation's 17.5 percent value-added tax - VAT - were applied to books, newspapers, and magazines, as government leaders have suggested. It is a move they hope would raise British pounds1 billion ($1.5 billion) in additional revenue. Higher costs, the flyer states, would result in fewer books being published and fewer being available to schoolchildren. Public libraries would be forced to cut back on purchases. Fewer authors would be published. A nd many local and specialized bookstores would go out of business.

Similarly, newspaper publishers, drawing on a study by Price Waterhouse, warn that such a tax would close down 1 of every 5 regional newspapers in Britain, cause the loss of nearly 2,500 jobs, and raise only half the British pounds135 million ($200 million) in additional taxes that regional newspapers would be expected to generate. The Guardian predicts the tax would cause that newspaper alone to lose sales of 25,000 issues a day.

The director of the Newspaper Society has called the proposal "a tax on knowledge." And, writing to members of Parliament, the Booksellers' Association director decried the tax as "a body blow for education. The last thing the government should do is to make the acquisition of new skills and ideas more expensive."

Even without taxes, the printed word faces other threats in the late 20th century - dangers that have more to do with attitudes than economics. In a recent survey conducted by the writers' group PEN, 60 percent of children's book authors in England said their work had been censored by publishers. Even reputable publishing houses, the writers complained, forbid references to pigs (which might offend Muslims), witches (which could anger religious fundamentalists), and ponies, lawns, and ballet classes (whi ch are luxuries unavailable to poor children). Critics worry that such politically correct restrictions will lead to literary dullness - a sure way to drive children from books.

Across the English Channel, teenage readers in France face another challenge: peer pressure. A recent test printed on the back of cereal boxes asked: "Are you cool?" One of the six questions read: "Wow! Someone wants to give you a present. Which would you choose: (a) a beautiful book, (b) a video game, or (c) a camera?" Those who chose the video camera were deemed "cool" and earned three points. The less-cool camera was worth two points. But woe to those teens who selected the book. They were judged "rea lly uncool" and given only one point.

The contest comes at a time when French publishers already face declining sales. According to a report in Le Figaro, even the word "book" is being dropped from "official educational jargon," to be replaced by the phrase "written messages."

To which a British book-lover might respond: Please don't tax our "written messages."

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The good news is that the threat of value-added taxes to writers and readers has not gone unrecognized. A few weeks ago, the European Parliament recommended removing value-added taxes from reading material in all European Community countries.

The world scarcely needs another apocalyptic prophecy about the end of books, the end of reading. But any reader's heart must sink at the report that 60 percent of American households did not buy a single book last year. Everybody - book readers or not - must realize by now that computer "literacy" will never replace literacy, even as a source of information, to say nothing of thought and feeling.

Perhaps the editorial writer for Le Figaro got a little carried away when he wrote: "Bereft of our readings, deprived of that communion of memory, we would have nothing left to share with one another but our sense of emptiness." Still, it is a reminder that no tax economist can measure the "value added" to a reader's life by the enrichment of books.

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