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Book Spurning: The People’s Library at OWS

by Morten Høi Jensen on April 1, 2012

A photo of the People’s Library Occupy Wall Street taken by David Shankbone on November 12, 2011 (via flickr.com/shankbone)

When the NYPD — invasion-clad and riot-tooled — swiftly and forcibly dislodged protestors of the Occupy Wall Street Movement from their stronghold in Zuccotti Park on November 15 last year, they mangled and destroyed, among other things, the so-called “people’s” library, an impressive collection of books generously made available to the public on a barter-basis: take one, leave one. A Gutenbergian species of free trade, if you will.

The Nuremberg Chronicle is an illustrated Biblical paraphrase and world history that follows the story of human history related in the Bible; it includes the histories of a number of important Western cities. Written in Latin by Hartmann Schedel, with a version in German translation by Georg Alt, it appeared in 1493. It is one of the best-documented early printed books — an incunabulum (printed, not hand-written) — and one of the first to successfully integrate illustrations and text. (via free-photos.biz)

Now, as a rule, if you are vying for the cooperation and understanding of a popular protest movement with a student majority, destroying their private property, including some five thousand books, is not the way to go. In fact, the act of destroying books, however you go about it, inevitably invokes a long and noxious history. Like it or not, you will quickly find yourself aligned with the fundamentalists who torched The Satanic Verses in the streets of London and Birmingham in 1989; with the looters and arsonists involved in the destruction of Baghdad libraries during the Iraq war; with the Nazis who set fire to heaps of irreplaceable books in the squares of Berlin in 1933.

The cynical and careless behavior of the NYPD, acting on behalf of Mayor Bloomberg, provoked much-deserved dollops of due outrage. “Bloomberg’s administration needs to acknowledge that wrong has been committed and that should never happen again in this great city,” Norman Siegel, former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, demanded. Mandy Henk, one of the librarians of the movement, asked: “What type of people are we if we can’t create a public space where we can share books and ideas with each other?” And from his Twitter account, Salman Rushdie himself ridiculed Bloomberg’s claim that Zuccotti Park was evacuated for public health concerns:

https://twitter.com/#!/SalmanRushdie/status/136870650290782208

In December last year, shortly after the evacuation, I marshaled a sizeable troop (forty or so, I think) of books I either didn’t want or had duplicate copies of. I’d gotten in touch with some people from the library who told me they always had someone down near Zuccotti Park. And, sure enough, on the Monday morning I showed up, there was a lone librarian looming over the singed and tattered paperback leftovers. Before I entered the park a city official stopped to ask what I thought I was doing. “Donating books,” I shrugged. He shook his head. “They’re just gonna get tossed, man. Anything in there is gonna get tossed.”

Damaged and destroyed books from the OWS Library post-Zuccotti Park raid (via fordhamamericanstudies.blogspot.com)

OK, I thought: the destruction of books is now acceptable. No big deal. Just a few bags of Balzac and Bolaño, Tolstoy and Toíbín, Kunzru and Kafka. Were they destroyed? Beats me. (Perhaps some cops formed a reading group and they’ve started in on The Trial. But I wouldn’t bet on that.) Earlier this month the Bloombergian bibliophobes were at it again: the People’s Library enjoyed a brief resurgence in Union Square Park until its obvious health hazards could be neglected no more. The NYPD duly removed it, making sure, as the librarians documented on Twitter, to kick around some of the books. A good time was had by all.

The People’s library represents, to me anyway, the most generous and compassionate aspect of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. The assemblage of books — donated from personal collections, each bearing some trace of its former owner’s encounter with ideas — transcends the blunt uniformity of protest; it’s a gesture toward reflection, education, and solitude. In general terms, the act of reading is as far from the act of protesting as you can get; it requires peace and quiet and a certain degree of loneliness. The library is a gesture by the protest movement beyond itself, beyond even its own arguments (among the books I donated was a spare copy of The Wealth of Nations) — it’s not a Communist book club or Trotskyist lit-forum. It’s just a free library. What harm could that possibly do?

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  • Jessica J.

    “It’s just a free library. What harm could that possibly do?”“the act of reading is as far from the act of protesting as you can get.”
    Of course reading is an act of protest. If knowledge is power, the library itself is symbolic of subversion and dissonance against the government.

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