Tom Englehardt descibes himself in his latest Tomdispatch.com post as having a thing for libraries and graduation speeeches. Here are the choicest tidbits from his speech to the OWS librarians and others at Zuccotti Park:
Let me fess up here to my fondness for libraries (even though I find their silence unnerving). As a child, I lived in the golden age of your lost world, but as something of an outsider. The 1950s weren’t a golden age for my family, and they weren’t particularly happy years for me. I was an only child, and my escape was into books. Less than a block from where I lived was a local branch of the New York City public library and, in those days before adult problems had morphed into TV fare, I repaired there, like Harriet the Spy, to get the scoop on the mysterious world of grown-ups. (The only question then was whether the librarian would let you out of the children’s section; mine did.)
I remembering hauling home piles of books, including John Toland’s But Not in Shame, Isaac Asimov’s space operas, and Désirée (a racy pop novel about a woman Napoleon loved), often with little idea what they were and no one to guide me. On the shelves in my small room were yet more books, including most of the Harvard Five Foot Shelf, a collection of 51 classic volumes. My set had been rescued from somebody’s flooded basement, their spines slightly warped and signs of mildew on some of them. But I can still remember taking them off my shelf with a certain wonder: Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast (thrilling!), Darwin’s The Origins of the Species (impenetrable), Homer’s The Odyssey (Cyclops!), and so on.
Books -- Johannes Gutenberg’s more than 500-year-old “technology” -- were my companions, my siblings, and also my building blocks. To while away the hours, I would pile them up to create the landscape -- valleys and mountains -- within which my toy soldiers fought their battles. So libraries and self-education, that’s a program in my comfort zone.
Though my route seemed happenstantial at the time, it’s probably no accident that, 35 years ago, I ended up as a book editor on the periphery of mainstream publishing and stayed there. After all, it was a paid excuse to retreat to my room with books (to-be) and, if not turn them into mountains and valleys, then at least transform them into a kind of eternal play and self-education.
All of which is why, on arriving for the first time at your encampment in Zuccotti Park and taking that tiny set of steps down from Broadway, I was moved to find myself in, of all things, an informal open-air library. The People’s Library no less, even if books sorted by category in plastic bins on tables isn’t exactly the way I once imagined The Library.
Still, it couldn’t be more appropriate for Occupy Wall Street, with its long, open-air meetings, its invited speakers and experts, its visiting authors, its constant debates and arguments, that feeling when you’re there that you can talk to anyone.
Like the best of library systems, it’s a Self-Education U., or perhaps a modern version of the Chautauqua adult education movement. Your goal, it seems, is to educate yourselves and then the rest of us in the realities and inequities of twenty-first century American life.
Still, for the advanced guard of your electronic generation to commit itself so publicly to actual books, ones you can pick up, leaf through, hand to someone else -- that took me by surprise. Those books, all donations, are flowing in from publishers (including Metropolitan Books, where I work, and Haymarket Books, which publishes me), private bookstores, authors, and well, just about anyone. As I stood talking with some of you, the librarians of Zuccotti Park, I watched people arriving, unzipping backpacks, and handing over books.
Of the thousands of volumes you now have, some, as in any library, are indeed taken out and returned, but some not. As Bill Scott, a librarian sitting in front of a makeshift “reference table” in muffler and jacket told me, “The books are donated to us and we donate them to others.”
A youthful-looking 42, Scott, an associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, is spending his sabbatical semester camped out in the park. His book, Troublemakers, is just about to be published and he’s bubbling with enthusiasm. He’s ordered a couple of copies to donate himself. “It’s my first book ever. I’ve never even held it in my hands. To shelve the first copy in the People’s Library, it’s like all the strands of my life coming together!"
Think of it: Yes, your peers in the park were texting and tweeting and streaming up a video storm. They were social networking circles around the 1%, the mayor, the police, and whoever else got in their way. Still, there you all were pushing a technology already relegated by many to the trash bin of cultural history. You were betting your bottom dollar on the value to your movement of real books, the very things that kept me alive as a kid, that I’ve been editing, publishing, and even writing for more than three decades.
That library -- in fact, those libraries at Occupy Boston, Occupy Washington, Occupy San Francisco, and other encampments -- may be the least commented upon part of your movement. And yet, you set your library up not as an afterthought or a sideline, but almost as soon as you began imagining a society worth living in, a little world of your own. You didn’t forget the books, which means you didn’t forget about education. I mean, a real education.
This was both generous of you and, quite simply, inspiring. Who would have expected that the old-fashioned, retro book would be at the heart of this country’s great protest movement of a tarnished new century?
When asked how the library began, librarian “Scales” (aka Sam Smith), an unemployed, 20-year-old blond dancer still in shorts on a chilly fall day, responded, “Nobody knows exactly who started it. It was like an immaculate conception. It was just here.” If the movement itself were a book, that might stand as its epigraph. Even if Occupy Wall Street indeed did start somewhere (as did its library), the way it has exploded globally in a historical nanosecond, does give it exactly the feeling Scales described.
When asked why he himself was here, he simply said, “I wanted something productive to do.”
In an economy where “production” is gone with the wind, that makes the deepest sense to me. Who doesn’t want to be productive in life? Why should a generation that Wall Street and Washington seem perfectly happy to sideline not want to produce something of their own, as they now have?
I was no less touched, while listening in on a long meeting of the Library Working Group one Saturday afternoon amid the chaos of Zuccotti Park -- crowd noise all around us, a band playing nearby -- when the woman standing next to me interrupted your meeting. She identified herself as an elected legislator from an upstate New York county who had driven down to see Occupy Wall Street for herself. She just wanted you, the librarians, to know that she supported what you were doing and that, while her county was still funding its libraries, it was getting ever harder to do so, given strapped state and local budgets.
Here are just a few things that you, the librarians of Zuccotti Park, said to me:
Bill Scott: “Part of the reason we’re down here is because we live in a society which promotes the idea that education should be bought and sold on the open market. We want to establish it as a human right. What the People’s Library proves is that books belong to the people, as does education. People with student-loan debt find their freedom and options limited. It severely limited my options. I’m still crawling out from under a ton of debt.”
Zachary Loeb, who in what passes for real life is an actual librarian: “I’m working part time, so I wake up every morning and spend two hours sending out resumes, but the work isn’t out there. My training’s in archiving, but nobody’s hiring. I got a degree in library science, not philosophy, which I wanted to go into, to be on a job track. Obviously, I’m not. Lots of people are here because the work situation is abysmal.
“I’ve been an activist for a long time. I read [the magazine] Adbusters and saw the call to occupy Wall Street. I was down here on the first day. I think we’ve changed the conversation in this country. We’ve given people permission to stand up, to talk to each other, test their ideas out against each other, and consider decisions that shouldn’t simply be made by the powerful in Washington.”
Frances Mercanti-Anthony, out-of-work actress (“my last play closed in August”) and comic writer: “Knowledge is the greatest weapon we have. What we’re doing is offering knowledge to people who have been disenfranchised. Our online database of books [in the People’s Library] stands as a great symbol of the movement, of democracy, of knowledge, and sharing.”
There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. You care. Sometimes it really is that simple.
Read the rest of Tom's (self-) graduation speech here.