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Resurrection by reading: An ode to used books | Opinions



It has by now become platitudinous to remark that people hardly read books any more – and physical ones even less – absorbed as we are by the demands of the digital age: scrolling, clicking, obsessively checking likes, and converting emotions into sequences of little yellow faces.

As a child, I read books constantly – along with everything else: the magazine that arrived with the Austin American-Statesman every Sunday to my parents’ house in Texas, appliance warranty papers, the text on the cereal box at breakfast. Decades later as I travelled the world in my twenties and thirties, resurrecting the ravenous reading habit was always on my to-do list – and yet it was inevitably easier to just continue scrolling and clicking.

Prior to spending the month of February 2022 in Cuba, I had not read a book for leisure in nearly a year – and I had not even finished that one. Then, one afternoon in Havana, I was overcome with spontaneous determination and dispatched myself in search of a used bookstore.

Perhaps it was because I already associated Havana with used books, having visited the city in 2006 and acquired a massive biography of Cuban revolutionary hero Camilo Cienfuegos, which I then had carted around to various countries while my intention of reading it remained unfulfilled. Or perhaps it was because Havana – with its effusive nostalgia and much-fetishised old-world charm – simply made me feel like I should be engaged in some romantic, pre-technological activity like reading a book.

Whatever the reason for my sudden decision to be the person that actually goes to the bookstore rather than just fantasising about it, I set out from my flat by the port in Habana Vieja – Old Havana, the city’s colonial quarter – passing elegantly crumbling and not-so-crumbling architecture and former haunts of the likes of García Lorca and Hemingway.

When I reached Calle Obispo, site of the Hotel Ambos Mundos where Hemingway once lived and the sort of street that looked like it would host a used bookstore, I turned left – and, sure enough, there was Librería Victoria, the name rendered in art deco stained glass above the shop entrance. The interior was intoxicatingly crammed with heaps of books and only a faint hint of organisation beyond the obligatory prominent display of offerings from Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Obviously, I could not proceed with my bookshop experience without first taking a photograph of the scene for placement on Facebook.

Thoughts of Facebook began to fade, however, as I rummaged through stacks of Borges and Neruda, Lenin and García Márquez, piles of children’s books and a shelf devoted to the Afro-Cuban struggle. In the end, I set aside two books by Uruguayan author Mario Benedetti, of whose existence I had been previously unaware, plus a book of poems by Neruda, and, finally, a Cuban atlas from 1978, the frayed blue cover of which had been invaded by a rust-coloured stain that had overtaken the “B” and “A” in “Cuba”.

The last addition caused some hesitation, as I weighed such issues as luggage weight and what exactly one does with a Cuban atlas from 1978. But whim won out over reason, and I presented my four items to the shopkeeper. Assuming that the prices pencilled in on the first page of each book were merely a jumping-off point for negotiations – particularly given the present financial situation in Cuba, where, for example, the 1,000 Cuban pesos pencilled in on the first page of the atlas corresponded to 40 dollars at the official exchange rate and 10 dollars on the black market – I offered some sum off the top of my head.

The man agreed and began packing up the books. I handed over the pesos, whereupon he redid the math and found my offer retroactively to be insufficient. I attempted a gringo capitalist customer-is-always-right approach, according to which he could not renegue on his initial acceptance; he countered by bellowing that I was crazy and launching into an impassioned recounting of all the times customers had accidentally overpaid and he had chased them down Calle Obispo to rectify matters. We shouted back and forth for several minutes – an exchange that was somehow not stressful in the least but rather, I felt, an ode to life. Then we were friends, and he gave me the books with a revised discount.

I lugged the treasures back to my flat, where I set them out on the table and reacquainted myself with the intimate thrill of inspecting used books and the sensation of holding history, as it were, in one’s hands. One of the Benedetti books had apparently been acquired by a B Valiño on April 2, 1970, while the other had belonged to a Rebeca with an indecipherable surname and included a page torn from a 1986 datebook: Thursday, February 6, through Wednesday, February 12.

By coincidence, the date of my visit to Librería Victoria was February 9 – albeit 36 years after the February 9 of the datebook page in question, which also bore the contact information of a certain María de los Ángeles at the Psychology Department of the National University of Costa Rica in Heredia. By further coincidence, the book itself – titled, La Tregua (The Truce, published in 1960) – began with a diary entry on February 11. Before I had even started reading, then, I felt some sort of captivating personal connection to the texts – a connection that was tied up with B Valiño, Rebeca, and María de los Ángeles of the Psychology Department.

There were no clues as to the provenance of the Neruda book, but inside I found dried rose petals in the fold preceding a 1953 poem inspired by Neruda’s then-lover Matilde Urrutia and the Italian island of Capri, evoking nostalgia for his native Chile. The upper right corner of page 141 was also folded over, and the title of that page’s poem, Con Ella (With Her), was underlined along with the poem’s first line: “Como es duro este tiempo; espérame” – “This time is difficult. Wait for me”.

On to the atlas, thanks to which I would spend countless hours poring over colourful maps depicting the mechanisation of Cuban sugar cane agriculture by province in 1978 and the average temperatures of regional surface waters in summer and winter. This was at least as good as reading the cereal box, I figured, and was certainly time better spent than on the wasteland of humanity known as social media. On pages 102 and 103, another map featured key landmarks of the Cuban Revolution as well as assorted imperial aggressions, including “counterrevolutionary infiltrations” and the inauguration of the US economic blockade of Cuba, illustrated by purple dashes surrounding the island. Officially enacted in 1962, the embargo continues to devastate the country as punishment for the felony of refusing to capitulate to capitalist domination.

Armed with my acquisitions from Librería Victoria in Havana, I was quickly reminded of how invigoratingly edifying reading can be – and felt I was pretty solidly exercising my “right to rest and leisure” as enshrined in Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Capitalism, of course, has different ideas about human rights, and prefers “leisure” activities that can be monetised – like staring at your mobile phone screen, where advertising saturation and limitless consumer opportunities mean you can still be contributing to corporate tyranny even under the illusion of downtime.

To be sure, reading books has been shown to improve mental health, reduce anxiety, and provide a necessary respite from real and digital worlds that are perhaps equally depressing. But it remains a luxury for many of the world’s inhabitants, who are often too busy trying to survive in a context of gross global inequality to think about the number of tractors in Cuba’s Ciego de Ávila province in 1978.

As Neruda wrote, “This time is difficult”. And as we plunge into ever more difficult ones – with less and less time to dream – here’s to more rose petals.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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Biden heads to Asia to boost Indo-Pacific ties amid Ukraine war | Politics News



Seoul, South Korea – President Joe Biden has embarked on a six-day visit to South Korea and Japan aimed at demonstrating the United States’ commitment to the Indo-Pacific region amid China’s rise and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The US leader is expected in South Korea on Friday evening.

After a three-day visit that includes a summit with his South Korean counterpart, Yoon Suk-yeol, he will leave for Japan on Sunday for talks with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

Biden’s first trip to Asia as president, however, is being overshadowed by what US officials have called a “real risk of some kind of provocation” from North Korea, including a nuclear or a missile test.

In Seoul and Tokyo, Biden will discuss the North’s nuclear programme as well as the US’s economic and security ties with its two treaty allies in Asia. He is also likely to seek improved relations between South Korea and Japan after ties soured over historical feuds and territorial issues during the presidency of Moon Jae-in.

In Tokyo, Biden will also convene a summit of the leaders of the Quad grouping – which includes the US, Japan, India and Australia – and launch the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), an agreement that seeks to set standards on supply chains, worker protections, decarbonisation and anti-corruption.

“The main objective of Biden’s trip to Asia is to shore up the support of key Asian allies for the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy,” said Jaechun Kim, professor of international relations at South Korea’s Sogang University. “There is concern that the Biden administration has got its hands tied in Ukraine war when the real threat is China and the key region of the US interest is the Indo-Pacific, not Europe.”

A placard near the US Embassy in Seoul showing the US and Korean flags and two people shaking hands - in support of Biden's visit
Experts say Biden’s visit to Seoul and Tokyo is about showing support to democratic allies in the Asia Pacific and the rules-based international order [Jung Yeon-je/AFP]

Biden’s visit, therefore, is aimed at showing that supporting Ukraine against Russian aggression is “closely related” to supporting its Asian allies counter China’s growing economic and military clout in the region.

“The Ukraine war is all about upholding the rules-based international order (RBIO), wherein the norm of sovereignty is the cardinal norm of international relations. Russia has violated that norm and invaded Ukraine. It should be stopped at all costs short of committing boots on the ground. The US Indo-Pacific is also about protecting RBIO in the region,” said Kim.

Democratic alliance

The White House has said Biden’s aim is not so much about confronting China, but sending a “powerful message” to Beijing and others about what the world could look like if democracies “stand together to shape the rules of the road”.

To that end, Biden’s Asia trip is also “fundamentally about” building personal ties with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters en route to South Korea.

“In both cases, he’s looking for the opportunity to just spend time to get to know these leaders … so that when they need to pick up the phone in a crisis or to respond to a major world event, there’s a baseline of trust and understanding and almost like a common operating language,” he said.

Biden’s meeting with Yoon will be his first. The South Korean leader, who was elected in a closely fought election in March, was inaugurated on May 10.

Biden and Kishida, who took office in October of last year, have met in person once before, on the sidelines of the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow in November last year.

Hours before Biden’s arrival, Yoon sent his “sincere welcome” to the US president.

“A mountain shows its way to the summit to those who seek it,” he wrote in the first ever tweet from his official account. “I am confident the ROK-US alliance that seeks to uphold the values of democracy and human rights shall only elevate in the future,” he added, referring to South Korea by its formal name, the Republic of Korea.

Yoon’s priority for Biden’s visit will be to “establish the ROK-US alliance as a central axis for building and strengthening East Asia and global peace and prosperity”, according to aides to the South Korean president, in the face of increased provocations from North Korea.

Pyongyang has carried out a record 16 weapons launches this year and US and South Korean officials say it may be preparing to test a nuclear weapon, perhaps during Biden’s three-day visit, despite grappling with a coronavirus outbreak that has infected an estimated two million people.

“There is a genuine possibility, a real risk of some kind of provocation while we’re in the region, whether in South Korea or in Japan, that could take the form of a nuclear test, the seventh nuclear test that North Korea’s conducted. It could take the form of a missile test,” Sullivan told reporters on board Air Force One, the president’s plane.

He added that Washington is prepared to respond to such an event.

“We have communicated not just our allies but with China, that this would cause the United States only to increase our fortitude in terms of defending our allies and cause adjustments to the way that our military is postured in the region.”

Seoul and Tokyo align

Yoon has pledged a tougher line on North Korea than his predecessor, including by seeking enhanced military drills with the US and the redeployment of US nuclear bombers and submarines to South Korean territory. But during his inauguration, he also promised an “audacious” economic plan if the North gave up its nuclear weapons.

Kim Jong Un shown on North Korean state television removing his face mask
North Korea is battling a severe outbreak of COVID-19, but there are concerns it could attempt a nuclear test while Biden is in the region [File: Anthony Wallace/AFP]

Analysts say they expect the US and South Korea to pursue a North Korea policy that focuses on deterrence rather than diplomacy, unlike Yoon’s predecessor, Moon.

“The significant conversation behind the scenes is going to be more around the question of how does the US effectively deliver credible extended deterrence to South Korea and what specific mechanisms does that look like,” said Scott Snyder, director of the Program on US-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based think-tank.

And that includes discussions on “the positioning of nuclear-capable assets”, he said.

Another key outcome of Biden’s Asia trip could also be improved South Korea-Japan ties. Analysts say this is key, not only to address North Korea’s nuclear programme, but also for the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

Yoon ran on a campaign platform of improving ties with Tokyo, and as president-elect, he sent a delegation in April to deliver a letter to Kishida that expressed his desire to pursue a “forward-looking partnership” with Japan, while also facing up to the shared history, according to the Yonhap news agency. These include addressing the issue of Japan forcing South Korean women into sexual slavery during World War II.

Yoon and Kishida’s desire for improved relations is a “very rare security condition” that is very advantageous to Biden, said Youngshik Bong, a research fellow at the Yonsei University’s Institute for North Korean Studies.

“For the first time in a long time, the leaderships of all three countries – South Korea, Japan, United States – are on the same page of strengthening and upgrading trilateral security cooperation …” he said. “If you look at past history, at least one leadership in one country has been quite cautious or passive in rendering full support for the trilateral security cooperation.

“But this time, all three leaders are on the same page.

“This will allow all three to work together to strengthen security cooperation,” he said.

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Australians ‘uniformly worried’ about economy on election eve | Elections News



Sydney, Australia – Australians head to the polls on Saturday to decide whether to give Scott Morrison’s Liberal-National coalition a fifth consecutive term in office or opt for change and back Anthony Albanese’s Labor party.

From climate change to the economy, there is a sense of uncertainty about the future.

Blessed by natural resources, Australia has enjoyed more than 20 years of steady economic growth, buoyed by the mining boom and demand from China, despite an increasingly tense relationship with the world’s fastest-growing economy.

But now, Australians are feeling the pinch – the cost of living is rising and property prices spiralling out of reach – and experts say that will be what matters most at the ballot box.

“Australians are almost uniformly worried about economic management,” said political scientist Jill Shepherd from the Australian National University (ANU). “Jobs and growth are at the forefront of voters’ minds.”

Labor is proposing methods to make housing more affordable – a key concern in Australia – as well as matching wage growth to the rising cost of groceries to tackle the global inflation crisis.

“The Liberal party doesn’t want to talk about that as much because they’ve been responsible for the last four years in the rise in cost-of-living,” she told Al Jazeera. Morrison’s Liberals are the dominant party in the conservative coalition.

Scott Morrison in his customary beiuge chinos and blue shirt kicks a football towards the camera as children and adults from the Vietnamese community watch
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been criticised over his handling of the bushfires crisis two years ago and accused of focusing too much on photo opportunities [Mick Tsikas/EPA]

Morrison’s supporters have instead sought to focus attention on his government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Australia was one of the first countries to close its borders and, for much of 2020 and 2021, pursued a successful zero-covid strategy – keeping the virus out with strict quarantines and ensuring the economy was largely unscathed.

However, even there, the situation is not all that positive for Morrison’s government.

After Sydney failed to contain an outbreak of the Delta variant last June, the policy was abandoned and Australia is now reporting among the highest number of new cases globally each day.

“People want this to be over and aren’t registering the significant number of deaths. There’s a Boeing 737 crash every seven to eight days,” said Dr Norman Swan, a prominent medical journalist.

Still, Swan says the pandemic is unlikely to affect the outcome of the election: “Since neither party has made it an issue there’s nothing to make you change your vote.”

Morrison has also made some missteps while in office.

Dubbed ‘Scotty from Marketing’ by a local news satire publication, critics claim he is more concerned with image and photo opportunities than policy.

He has been condemned over his response to this year’s floods – with angry Lismore residents dumping their flood-damaged belongings at his door – and also over his handling of the devastating bushfires two years ago when he went on holiday to Hawaii.

As southeastern Australia burned and people were forced to take shelter on beaches, a photo of him doing the shaka at Waikiki Beach caused an outcry.

Opening for Labor

The bungles have created an opening for Labor.

Albanese has been a member of parliament for more than a quarter of a century, but despite being around a long time, most voters know little about him. The Australian Financial Review, for example, reported that in a series of focus groups voters labelled him ‘dull’ and ‘uninspiring’.

Anthony Albanese meets a crowd of supporters during a visit to a college in Adelaide
Australian Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has the edge going into Saturday’s poll, but has also made missteps during campaigning [Lukas Coch/AAP Image via Reuters]

He, too, has made some blunders.

At the start of his campaign, he failed to recall the unemployment rate and, a few days ago, told journalists Australia’s borders were closed – despite them opening some six months ago.

Perceptions of the two leaders might matter more given the lack of difference between the major parties’ policy platforms, at least on the economy.

Morrison’s party is proposing a scheme to allow young people early access to their superannuation funds to buy property and get a foot on the property ladder.

It is a policy that is likely to be popular among those under 40, who have been ridiculed for supposedly prioritising brunches of smashed avocado over real estate, but economists warn is likely to drive house prices even higher.

“I think what the Liberal Party is hoping here is that young voters will be so excited by the prospect of buying their first house that they won’t mind that price rise,” she said.

Another issue that has been at the forefront of voters’ minds is climate change.

Plies of ruined furniture, clothing and other personal possessions piled on the street outside flood-affected homes in Lismore
Voters are increasingly concerned about climate change after the 2019/2020 bushfires and the unprecedented flooding that hit Lismore earlier this year [File: Darren England/EPA]

Australia is particularly vulnerable to its effects, with a long history of droughts, bushfires, and floods.

Despite this, the mining industry makes up a significant portion of the country’s economy, and Morrison’s government has been heavily criticised internationally for inaction on climate change.

Albanese has said he wants to change this, getting Australia out of the “naughty corner” at United Nations climate change conferences.

“Climate change is looking at being one of the most significant factors in polling at this Saturday’s election,” said sustainability investor Katerina Kimmorley.

Narrowing lead

The desire to see determined action on climate has prompted voters to look towards independent candidates and away from the major parties.

“These independents are strong advocates on climate change. They may end up holding the balance of power in parliament and then could end up having a significant impact on climate policy,” Kimmorley said.

The two parties also diverge in their policies on Indigenous peoples.

For 50 years, Aboriginal groups have occupied the lawn outside Canberra’s Parliament House, demanding land rights and recognition as the nation’s first people in the constitution.

Now, Albanese has said he wants the constitution amended to recognise that Australia’s history did not begin in 1788 when the British arrived. A senior member of the Liberal Party, however, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, has said there is a long way to go before constitutional recognition. Frydenberg is currently polling behind his independent challenger in his once-safe Liberal seat.

Independent candidate Allegra Spender speaks to voters in the Sydney inner city seat of Wentworth where she hopes to unseat the Liberal candidate
Independent candidates, many of them women, are giving the major parties a run for their money [Mark Baker/AP Photo]

Labor has also promised to overhaul childcare to make it more affordable and enable more women to get back to work.

“One of the most effective ways we can boost participation is by getting rid of the complicated mess of payments that put hurdles in the path of parents wanting to return to work,” Albanese told an audience at the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry earlier this month.

While Labor is up currently in the polls, its margin is narrowing.

“For the most part, both parties are holding together, just trying to scrape over the line to election day,” said ANU’s Shepherd.

“We’ll see after the election which party is dealing with bloodshed and recriminations.”

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As Australia votes, cost of living a key concern | Business and Economy



Hobart, Australia – Penny-pinching is a way of life for Australian David Jobling. The Adelaide man lives in public housing, suffers from chronic pain and survives on a disability pension of 450 Australian dollars ($316) per week.

But with the cost of living rising, he is starting to feel the panic set in.

Even though he is accustomed to living on a tiny income, the 60-year-old actor and writer by training is not sure his budget can stretch any further.

“I’ve done my research in terms of what I can do within my limits,” Jobling told Al Jazeera, adding there is “not a lot of incentive” to do the occasional casual work he picks up because it reduces the value of his pension payments. “But prices are rising, and it’s scary.”

He’s not alone.

David Jobling hold an infant.
Australians like David Jobling are worried about making ends meet amid rising inflation [Courtesy of Nina Hendy]

Ahead of Australia’s federal election on Saturday, the cost of living has become a pivotal issue for voters. Nearly half of Australians are more worried about their ability to make ends meet than they were a year ago, with young people, women and low-income earners the most concerned, according to an opinion poll released last month.

Even wealthy Australians appear worried, as rising prices and sinking stock markets gnaw away at investment portfolios and newspapers aimed at well-to-do professionals run articles with tips on stopping inflation and “getting away with your wealth”.

Australia’s inflation rate hit 5.1 percent during the first quarter, driven by soaring costs of food, housing, education and transport. Although not as severe as in the United States or the United Kingdom – where inflation is running at 8.3 percent and 9 percent, respectively – the figure marked the steepest rise in prices in more than two decades.

House prices rose especially sharply, surging a record 18.1 percent in 2021/22 – although there are some signs the market could be near the peak.

With the average house in Sydney and Melbourne selling for more than 1 million Australian dollars ($700,000), many young adults are forced to keep living at home with their parents well into their 20s and 30s. Petrol prices in March hit new records, going as high as 2.40 Australian dollars ($1.70) per litre in some parts of the country.

Meanwhile, wage growth has stagnated over the past decade, meaning Australians are paying more with less money in the household budget. In January-March, wages grew by 2.4 percent – less than half the rate of inflation.

The rising cost of living in the “Lucky Country” has hit hard in a nation accustomed to continually rising living standards after 31 years of economic growth that was only interrupted when the pandemic hit.

Campaign material for Anthony Albanese.
The Liberal Party-National Coalition and Labor Party are running neck and neck in the final stretch of Australia’s election campaign [File: Loren Elliott]

Despite the cost of living dominating the election campaign, both the incumbent Liberal-National Coalition and centre-left Labor Party have faced criticism for not offering enough to alleviate the pain.

While Prime Minister Scott Morrison has campaigned for weeks on cost of living issues, rolling out excise tax cuts and a scheme to allow first home buyers to tap into their retirement savings, he has largely blamed overseas events such as the war in Ukraine for the financial squeeze.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has been criticised for offering little detail about how households would be better off overall under Labor’s plans to address the growing cost of living.

The centrepiece of Labor’s manifesto is a scheme under which the government would pay up to 40 percent of the cost of a new home. The ‘Help to Buy’ scheme would be available for up to 10,000 homes a year.

The two parties are running neck and neck, after Labor’s substantial lead narrowed in recent days.

Rising interest rates to tame inflation are also adding to the squeeze, spurring higher mortgage repayments for millions of Australians.

Claire Victory, national president of the St Vincent de Paul Society, said politicians should take “urgent action” to support Australians living in or at risk of falling into poverty.

“Interest rate hikes will add to these pressures and disproportionately impact the most vulnerable people in the community, who are already struggling to get by, often with limited family or social support networks,” Victory told Al Jazeera.

The worst is likely yet to come, with Australians warned that inflation will continue to rise this year and possibly the next.

Michael Kodari, the CEO of Kodari Securities, said Australians could take comfort in knowing the soaring prices are unlikely to be a long term problem.

“As it was born from the aftershock of the pandemic, this period of inflation is not a sign of a chronic situation and will likely resolve itself in time,” Kodari told Al Jazeera.

In the meantime, Australians like Jobling, who is not a fan of either major party and is considering voting for the minor Australian Greens, are hunkering down.

“I know what I’ve got available to spend right down to the cent every single day and I just cannot go over that,” he said.

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