From the first reports of the bunch of people "occupying Wall Street," I was intrigued by accounts of their formation of a library.
What was in this People's Library? I wondered. Was it all Marxist Workers' World tracts and Chomsky screeds? (Worker's World was stacked around covering up some of the book titles.)
They were seeking donations -- would they take, oh, Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations" I wondered?
When I got to the teeming square, I had to ask people earnestly cooking or giving interviews to the media -- who almost seemed to outnumber the protestors -- where the Library was. 'I think it's up there, somewhere," a middle-aged woman told me who was taking names for volunteer groups. I couldn't seem to find it in the welter of people and wires with laptops -- and asked again. "Isn't it up there?" a woman vaguely pointed.
The People's Library is a stretch of book stall such as you might find in Union Square, perhaps several dozen feet along a wall, inside a sunken plaza below the sidewalk level. This arrangement means that the hovering librarians -- there were at least 4 or 5 while I was there -- had constantly to warn photographers trying to get a purchase position to film the march, or protesters in the street, to stop kicking over their books -- some of which were propped up on the top of the wall.
There was a plastic pouch to donate money and yards of plastic sheeting -- it has been raining a lot lately.
I asked a young man if he could tell me about the library and he pointed to the Internet site, then turned me over to a young white woman with buzz-cut dark hair who looked to be about 19 or 20 in a white tee-shirt with the slogan about Corporate Greed, whose name was Briar.
"You talk to her," he said to Briar, signalling I might be a "live one".
She cautioned to me that she did not represent anything, that what she was saying was only her own point of view, that she was just helping out.
Asked about the content of the library, she explained that it was "related to the questions addressed by the movement."
I asked what "the movement" was.
She paused and looked to her fellow librarians -- it turned out they were all students from an anthropology course -- as they stopped to think, too. Clearly, they had thought about this, and either felt they couldn't define it or it shouldn't be defined so it could "remain fluid" (as movement people always claim they are remaining before they solidify into that sectarian strait-jacket that first animated them.)
I tried another tack. "Can you donate just anything? Can you donate, oh, I dunno, books by the Koch brothers?"
"We do not censor," Briar explained. "We have even actual librarians here." It's based basically on enthusiasm, she assured me.
"They want there to be books," she said. "Information belongs to everyone. People should have access to information."
Well, information doesn't belong to *everyone* -- who was really cooking up this occupation and financing it, for example, wasn't exactly explicit and remains opaque even from the airy references in the Occupy Wall Street Journal -- being handed out to the crowd fresh off (the hopefully union) presses -- both to Ad-Busters and Anonymous. (Ugh on both of those; both are manipulative of public consciousness with little or no accountability for themselves.)
"Information needs to be shared," said Briar.
I asked Briar if she subscribed to the slogan "Information wants to be free." She had never heard of it. Well, she couldn't have been more than 20, and fortunately, the geeky opensourceniks -- on evidence from the hacker youths and tangle of laptops and in the lists of working groups -- hadn't reached everyone with their cult.
I explained the saying came from Richard Stallman and his followers in the free software movement (remember, these sectarians don't identify "open source" as coterminous) and she pondered the saying for a bit, turning it over in her mind -- but I felt she found it rather strange and anthropomorphic...or something...and seemed to prefer the "Information needs to be shared" as the better slogan -- and I tend to agree.
She explained that her father was head of a university IT department and she grew up interested in open source, making books available on line, making research more accessible.
I asked her who her political grandfathers were. This term -- "political grandfathers" -- is itself a kind of throwback to Trotskyist discussions of the 1960s or 1980s, but it's a useful question to ask. For example, my political grandfathers include C.S. Lewis and E.P. Thompson -- as different as they are -- or Aryeh Neier and Victor Navasky -- as much as I might disagree with them -- and the Soviet human rights advocates Andrei Sakharov and Ludmila Alexeyeva (grandmothers are ok to have, too).
Briar thought about this, but didn't really understand what I was getting at. I tried different other questions. What had she read? What groups had she heard of? Had she ever heard of DSA?
"DSA?" she asked, quizzically.
"The Democratic Socialists of America," I said.
"No, I don't know what the Democratic. Socialists. of America are," she said tensely and patiently as if humouring me.
"They're not so active any more, " I explained.
"I'm anti-authoritarian," Briar said firmly -- and again cautioned that she wasn't attempting to represent anybody.
Sigh. What are they afraid of? Will one of the cadres from the cadre-run organizations come over and reprimand her?
"It's just the Internet," I reassured her. "It's just my little blog." I gave her my name and this blog's name.
"I don't want to be misrepresented on your blog," she said worriedly.
I don't think I've misrepresented her here. She's an earnest young woman who believes in her mission, while not perhaps terribly informed -- but that's a relative concept and clearly she's bright and educated and goes to university. She told me she doesn't actually live in the square but lives uptown and comes downtown to help.
And now -- for the titles, as many as I could manage to write down -- I will look up the complete references in due course.
Neoliberalism by Harvey
Hard Times by Studs Terkel
Tin House -- Class in America (this is a magazine)
Conquest of Mind by Eknath and Easwaran
Diet for a New America by John Robbins
Ayn Rand reader
*Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them by Al Franken
The (*) represents what I saw as "staff's picks" -- the books arranged on the top of the wall. I asked another one of the People's Librarians if indeed these *were* staff's picks, or reader's choices, and she said they were, to some extent, but they also were books that had been put out to dry after it rained.
We both roared with laughter.
*The First Two Novels by Lisa Scottoline.
This was a legal thriller, and one middle-aged Hispanic woman taking a copy thanked the librarians for having novels, as well, and told her friend that she liked the way they provided fun reading as well. I imagine the nights get long and boring in Zuccotti Square and it might be hard to sleep in the cold, with 300 other people restless nearby and the laptops needing to recharge -- then these books might be really appreciated.
*The Road to Tahrir Square
*Unorthodox Marxism by Michael Albert
*Progress and Poverty by Henry George
*The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell
*The Turning by Tim Winton
*Rebels in Paradise (on the LA art scene)
*No Exit by J.P. Sartres
*In Defense of Affirmative Action
Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
Vanity Fair by Thackeray
Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev (I moved this up to "reader's picks" and told Briar that I had this at home, in the original and in another translation, and that Bazarov, the nihilist, would be right at home here on the square.)
I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can
The Plums by Jane Evanovitch (novels)
*Mars the Living Planet
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov
Collision Course by Joseph McCartin (about air traffic controllers' strike)
*No Impact Man: Adventures of a Guilty Liberal
*Racism: A Short History by George Frederickson
*The Autobiography of Mother Jones (this, a well-worn paperback that kept falling from the wall as photographers kicked the books, and several of us kept restoring it to its place)
*The Central Park Five
*Race and Social Analysis
*Homothug (claiming to be a conspiracy theory about Guiliani being a closet gay)
By now, the crowd was larger and someone else -- a reporter? -- was asking the woman who had laughingly told me that the "staff's picks" were really books drying out in the rain -- what were the most popular books and most requested?
"Chomsky and Howard Zinn," she answered promptly.
These two have infected enormous swathes of young people's minds because they are countercultural bibles that have now become practically mainstream on university reading lists -- people imbibe them uncritically and think they represent the secrets of the universe.
I didn't see books by these propagandists in the stall, but that's presumably because they were taken out.
I never did really get the "system" for how to handle the books. It seemed hard for the librarians to just say "Take it but bring it back."
I asked Briar if you could take them, but only read them here in the square. She deflected the question with a statement that the books "belonged to everyone."
I was supposed to be mastering the New Utopia's line, see.
Each book was marked with a magic-marker on the top: OWSL (Occupy Wall Street Library)
Finally, somewhat reassured that I was harmless, Briar divulged to me a wrinkled, much-thumbed two-page policy paper from the People's Library.
Like libraries the world over, it was painfully bureaucratic but after studying it for awhile I could surmise that cataloguing was a big problem, and aspirations ran as far as having inter-library loan, presumably with other People's Libraries. (And I hope to get enough time and energy to start one myself.)
What came across primarily is that this People's Library -- whatever its haphazard actual contents -- was a kind of symbolic collection of knowledge that the Librarians wanted to hold sacred and protect -- they didn't want the books thrown around or covering each others' titles (signs warned that you should keep the spines in view and not cover up titles for other browsers), they wanted the stall to be protected in the event of rain or huge crowds.
I wondered why you'd want to catalogue something that was running to the fluid and chaotic. While I stood there, a young lesbian couple approached and asked nervously if they could take the Margaret Atwood. "Of course," I said, in People's Library fashion. "Just bring it back..." I began to explain. "...Hopefully," as I saw them wander away from the march.
It struck me that if you had a system like The Strand in the form of an ap, you would just scan the ISBN thing with a smartphone and it would automatically make a list. Someone will probably make such a thing, as painfully writing the titles down is too hard -- as I've tried to do here, capturing probably not even 10 percent of the titles (but giving a good idea of the sample of what is there).
There was also a batch of kids' books which I didn't even get to look at.
As the marchers began to arrive, Briar instructed that we should form a "wall of people" to protect the collection. I quickly turned my back to the stall along with others to make the human wall, and fell into conversation with one of the marchers. She was one of those insufferable America-hating Australians who whined in self-entitled self-inflicted misery that "they" (the police) had "forced them" to walk on the sidewalk and wasn't it horrible and cruel.
I kept my own counsel because I could see that she wasn't really someone you could reason with. But I had to wonder: why do you get to block traffic? You were asked to stay on the sidewalk and not block buses and cars. Why can't you do that? It's not like there's that many of you. These were state workers -- teachers, nurses, clerks, transit workers. Why do they get to hold up other people from getting home from work -- and prevent their fellow transit workers from doing their jobs?
All in all, I felt a little bit better about this clearly cadre-inspired sectarian Occupy Wall Street "movement" because still and all, there were people in it who seemed to care about books. To be sure, they were mainly "progressive" and sectarian books and even outright conspiracy theories -- and nothing at all that represented any kind of treasures of Western civilization, even with Ivanhoe. And I don't think if you tried to insert, oh, Glenn Beck's works into this mix that the People's knowledge workers might not throw them in the trash.
Even so, I felt that the spirit that these anthropology students were trying to embody was one that involved passing knowledge from the ages down to the next generations.
I asked one librarian if they had E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class. She had not heard of it, or him, although it used to be a classic.
I tried to think what I would donate or what this library needed -- Paul Hollander's The End of Commitment which I'm reading now might be a good start, given all the shrill Marxist eat-the-rich signs.
But to be honest, I was kind of drawing a blank, feeling as if I was in the teeth of a big storm -- raging about were the vast winds of the ages that blow away people and ideas, never to bring them back. I longed for the days of pamphlets -- pamphlets people really read and studied, before the Internet (Thompson wrote a lot of them, and short books like Protest and Survive.)
"Do young people really read the books," I asked Briar anxiously. Most of the people at the stalls were middle-aged or elderly, as it happened at that moment, other than one young black man taking down the Racism book.
"Oh, yes," she assured me.
"But don't you all just read your smartphones and your ipads?" I asked? The news of Steve Jobs death had not yet circulated.
"Oh, no," she continued to assure me.
"I mean, really sit, with the book in your hands, and engage with the book?" I continued to pester her.
I stayed another few hours following the crowds and the signs, before it began to get a little too crowded and angry with people pushing.
I went home to celebrate my son's birthday, as we discussed the news of Steve Jobs' passing, and drank tea out of our beloved "Prof. Thompson cups" saved for special family occasions -- the fine Yorkshire porcelain cups that Edward gave me for a wedding present in 1988.