VANISHED (and then, partly, not)
"The books have been seized, librarians have been gassed and jailed." If this message wasn't coming over the Occupy Wall Street Library's Facebook page, you might think you'd been hurled back in time, to 1933 Berlin when Goebbels "consigned to the flames" thousands of books.
But this was yesterday in New York City and Bloomberg was the leader giving orders.
all photos November 2011
Just a few days ago, I made a visit to Occupy Wall Street and was impressed with the growth of the People's Library, which I'd seen evolve from a few cardboard boxes of books perched on a ledge to a lighted Quonset hut (donated by Patti Smith) loaded with well-organized titles in every genre. So it was with great sadness and outrage that I heard the news yesterday morning about the NYPD raid on Zuccotti Park and their destruction of the People's Library.
After the initial shock, we learned that the NYPD tossed more than 5,000 books into a Dumpster and demolished the library tent. One occupier and dedicated bibliophile ran into the library during the raid and strapped the homemade OWS Poetry Anthology to his body to save it from destruction.
Librarians gassed and jailed. Heroes strapping books of poetry to their bodies. Here's something: Nobody's doing that for a Kindle.
But Kindles are not books, because books are more than collections of words. Those creaky paper bodies, rejected today by so many future fetishists, have meaning. They take up space. And that space-taking matters, because it functions both to agitate and to bring people together.
Seeing books has an impact. Whether it's in a library or through the windows of a bookshop, just seeing large numbers of books together in one place has the power to stir emotions. And the People's Library was this kind of powerful place--not virtual, but real. E-readers like the Kindle do not have this power. "Vooks" don't gather. They don't mass. They don't burn and therefore do not, by the spectacle of their burning, shock us into action.
In their physicality, and thus vulnerability (like human bodies), books have the power to make us righteously outraged when they are threatened with destruction. When all books are electronic, we won't witness their destruction, a silent deletion, and so we won't feel it as much when they vanish.
And that's why the wanton Dumpstering of the People's Library could be a good thing for books.
The makers of Kindles and iPads and Nooks have been trying to make books uncool for years now--and they are succeeding. Only dinosaurs read real books, says Amazon and Apple. Only sullen necrophiliacs cling to those "dusty tomes," say even our Pulitzer Prize-winning authors.
But what if bibliophiles became, again, radical revolutionaries in the collective imagination? What if the borrowing, lending, buying, selling, and reading of real books became a renegade act?
The People's Library was started as a small stack of random books by Brooklyn librarian Betsy Fagin, then grew exponentially as book donations poured in. It hosted authors like Jonathan Lethem and Jennifer Egan. It hosted readings and took on the resistant mantra of Bartleby the Scrivener. Most of all, it served as an urban base for guerrilla librarianship.
I learned about guerrilla librarianship from a young student of Library Science in Zuccotti Park. He and his cohorts were so excited to talk about books. They wanted to spend their days in the presence of books, in the cold and damp weather, to catalog and organize these supposedly irrelevant objects, to provide pleasure and inspire thought in others. All of this human activity is unnecessary with e-readers. There's nothing to organize because there's nothing to put your hands on.
By yesterday evening, the People's Library blog reported: "The Mayor’s Office claims our books are safe," and included a photo from officials as proof. Most of the books might be returned to the librarians today--this morning, four books occupy the park--but the deed was still done. (Click for update on the destruction and loss--the poetry-book hero tells Gothamist, "we're pretty sure 90% of the books are destroyed.")
Librarians were gassed and jailed.
Books were seized.
It's time to start burning the Kindles and get back to the real thing.
Read Burn the Kindle at The Grumbler.