Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The People's Library

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.


Anonymous said...

Amen, Brother Jeremiah! Here's to hope! I hope the books are safe and that people will be able to read them again soon!

Melanie said...

I took library science in college and worked at The Sterling Memorial Library at Yale. Your piece here on books is a beautiful piece of writing..I too love the feel and smell of a book. Yes, they (books) can enrage, cause laughter and meaning and learning.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post.

everettsville said...

Two unrelated comments about books:

1) On a Q-train in Brooklyn one recent weekend I counted seven people in my car reading books and about as many others reading mags or newspapers. That's just what was visible from my (seated) vantage point, so there may have been more. Felt like I'd time-traveled about ten years. Scenes like this are reassuring, even if they're not the norm.

2) On my coast-to-coast move this summer, books were a huge burden in terms of weight, space and cost of transport. While those with their books in e-storage have it much easier in that regard, I'd have it no other way. Books (plus CDs & LPs) make a house a home.

Guy Montag said...

Books are dangerous and should be burned. All hail the kindle.

Jeremiah Moss said...

Montag, you're just waiting to press the big Delete button.

Brendan said...

I agree with the commenter on the Grumbler that e-readers can be valuable if they are used in addition to, rather than instead of, books. Self-publishing a book requires a lot of money. If people without the means to get a book published can get their ideas out by putting out an e-book, that's a good thing. E-books would be to books as blogs are to traditional media, bringing more people into the conversation.

Whether this scenario will play out, or whether e-readers will simply replace books, remains to be seen, of course. I prefer optimism.

Marty Wombacher said...

@Brendan: Books can be self-published in print for free, check out, a great site for independent writers.

Laura Goggin Photography said...

Yes! Great post!

Katrink said...

Beautiful post. I could almost smell the papery scent of the pages. Thanks for speaking on behalf of real book lovers!

Little Earthquake said...

I get the part about the books, but where is the information on people being gassed and jailed? Confused.

Brendan said...


Interesting, good to know. (Not that I'm planning to self-publish a book any time soon.)

I'm sticking to my point that e-readers are a morally neutral tool that can be used for good or evil. Someone might prefer to self-publish electronically so that an e-book could reach a wider audience.

Jeremiah Moss said...

Earthquake, as of 4:00 today, the librarians are still in jail.

"The cops gassed, beat, and arrested them."

Anonymous said...

As someone not sympathetic to people "occupying" private property in NYC's financial district when they should be occupying, if anything, the Mall in Washington to grab the attention of the Democratic and Republican enablers of crony capitalists, I am appalled at the treatment of the books. A good book, as I tell my daughter, is a ticket to another country and time. A collection of books is a universe unto itself and should be protected as if it were an endangered species.

Alana said...

great post indeed J! If they ever start a revolution involving books I'd be front and center.

Brendan said...

Tertium Quid, it's misleading to describe Zuccotti as private property. Brookfield Properties agreed to run it as a public amenity for the city in exchange for development rights on adjacent land. If you read the court order upholding the new ban on tents etc., you'll see that the park's "private" status doesn't even enter into the judge's reasoning. He treats it as a public park like any other.

Wall Street and the regulators and politicians they've bought are both worthy targets. And obviously "Occupy Wall Street" has really resonated with a lot of the country.

kateoverseas said...

You're aware we have not created a black hole in our apartment by owning two stuffed bookcases and two kindles, right?

I almost returned it, being concerned it would not get enough use to justify its cost, and then I realized: I can now read while standing on the train. I can read while eating. I can read in class substantially more inconspicuously. When turning pages requires the pressure of one finger rather than a wrist contortion, I can read while doing just about anything. You can even set it to turn pages for you! I've been waiting for this magic my whole life!

Plus, I mean...I get the disappointment that it's not a legit physical book, with all the smells and feels that implies. But, it is still the written word, the action performed is still reading. Fahrenheit 451 read from my mother's old copy (as if I'd risk that on the train!) or from the library kindle version is still the same text, the same message. Guy Montag would still be required to censor it.

yellowdoggranny said...

I'm absolutely shocked..that they would do such a thing and the stupidity of the action. Doesn't that A-Hole know that those people vote? him out and vote him out big.

Jeremiah Moss said...

kate, i find that when we value convenience highly, often over all else, we tend to ignore or disavow the things and people we are helping to destroy by it.

whether it's the way buying e-readers and e-books is destroying books, bookstores, and the entire industry of book publishing, or the way buying iphones contributes to the literal destruction of the people who make them in china.

we don't want to feel shitty about the things that bring us convenience. personally, i'd like to get to a place where convenience is less and less important.

Little Earthquake said...

Thanks for the link, Jeremiah.

Books remain the most reliable information storage and retrieval devices.

Technology is great, but Carl Sagan warned of the perils of over-reliance without understanding it. American society is becoming more dependent on science, while simultaneously becoming more scientifically illiterate and ignorant.