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You Are What You Read

Occupy with Books

On a warm October night I arrived at Occupy Wall Street in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park to provide free jazz sax accompaniment for a slide show by radical comics artist and Understanding the Crash author Seth Tobocman. Amid the forest of protest signs and adjacent to hundreds of activists lounging in sleeping bags, was the People’s Library, constructed of plastic bins and milk crates, displaying thousands of donated books. Because “the book” in public settings is under attack as the transference of usage to cyberspace accelerates, it seemed quite appropriate that the Occupy Wall Street anti-corporate protest was privileging the physical items.

To many Americans, access to book collections in public places connotes participatory citizenship. When fund-starved public libraries cut back on acquisitions and hours, and when neighborhood bookstores vanish, community members experience a devaluation of our intricate social networks and self-education practices. We worry that the loss of public book collections will inflict lasting damage on social life.

Proponents of the movement of book use onto the Internet say that creative destruction of social arrangements is commonplace and inevitable. It is progress engendered by technology and should be embraced. In particular, e-advocates suggest we should trust the corporations that have seized control of this process. But decades of corporate scandals facilitated by government cronyism should alert us that we have no reason to blindly trust corporate and institutional actors who are driven by motives of self-interest and shareholder benefit.

For instance, similar arguments about progress and the wisdom of the wealthy drove the nationwide bulldozing of inner cities in the 1950s and 60s and the replacement of those neighborhoods with superhighways and public housing. It was New York City preservationist Jane Jacobs—author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities—who led the fight against super-planner Robert Moses to prevent this “progressive” process in Lower Manhattan. While many American cities have endured decades of downtown decay and depopulation after the actions of powerful urban planners, by contrast the vibrant neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan that were saved from destruction by 1960s activists are testament today to the correctness of Jacobs’ trenchant analysis and energetic resistance work.

We pro-book preservationists must learn from Jane Jacobs and stand our ground. When Amazon founder Jeff Bezos proclaims that his new Kindle Fire will bring eighteen million songs, movies, games, and books to the gadget’s owners, we must be the ones who remind our friends that his company excels at creating bestsellers; most of its available titles barely sell at all.

By capturing the attention of readers, Amazon has put the presence of embodied books in social settings under siege, and we must overcome this atomizing influence. In solidarity, we must launch new public spaces that celebrate actual, physical books and attract readers out of their isolation: community-owned bookstores, coffee-shops with literary and musical programming, and—especially when our tax dollars fail to preserve our public libraries’ accessibility—ad hoc libraries like the brave book collection at Zuccotti Park. We must Occupy with Books.

Andrew Laties

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