Tag Archives: Libraries

On Books and Barbarians

Books destroyed in the raid on Zuccotti Park. Photo courtesy of the Occupy Wall Street People’s Library

I was planning to muse about what it feels like to read a book a day but events derailed that idea. It seems that a free public library in a park needs to be dismantled in the dead of night by riot police and carted off by the Sanitation Department. And then, after more books are donated and some few damaged volumes are salvaged, the free library should be trashed again. Very nice. Not exactly my utopian idea about a whole city that becomes a library. Not really defensible unless we are the barbarians after all. Once upon a time I thought that marching and protesting—and even voting–could change the world. These days I read obsessively to change myself.

OWS new mobile People's Library--police won't let the books back into the park so they've taken to the streets with the protestors. Photo Courtesy of Occupy Wall Street.

As I keep on opening books and turning pages, I have discovered that I’m still tempted to abandon a book midway if it isn’t a pure joy to read. By finishing books, I find a few treasures and some memorable ideas or characters or plot twists. I still feel guilty about reading as there is so much work to do and not enough work for pay and I always think I should be marketing more, hunting for jobs to apply for (exercise in futility but guilt assuaging), doing the laundry at the dismal, overcrowded Laundromat. (Glamorous Gotham is full of romantic prewar brownstones with no laundry facilities whatsoever and none allowed in individual apartments.) Everything, it seems, could take precedence over reading a book, which must be an act of pure self-indulgence. How can reading a book be essential?

The OWS People's Library - Mid-October 2011

My answer to myself is that, in a society of barbarians, how could anything be more essential? Books capture the past, the present and the future. Books tell stories. Books create worlds. This one is slightly insupportable at the moment. So I can search for a better world, or ideas about how to make this broken world better, in every book I open. Reading is an exercise in hope. 

Reading a book a day takes time. So does blogging about the book. I spend more time than I mean to writing posts and more time than I want to loading the posts into the blog template and adding all the bits. I like the whole process, though. Immersing myself in a sea of printed words is a good feeling. I pay more attention to book news. I read more tweets from literary types. Occasionally I get the chance to interact with an actual reader about booklolly. No one ever says, How can you possibly do this? They know it’s doable. What they say is, I could never do that. And I silently substitute “would.”

Haul away all the books you like in dumpsters. Scatter the pages of books like leaves in autumn. Convince yourself, as I did, that you don’t have time to read and dash on madly in your busy lives. Or let the laundry pile up now and then, serve cereal for supper, and feed your starving soul with the rich repast of a good book. It will give you something worthwhile to talk about over the cereal. A book might be your best weapon for keeping the barbarians at bay. It might change your life. It might give you hope.

My library--part of the China section

Selected Translations 1968-1978 W.S. Merwin

W.S. Merwin at OWS

The book was stained, its pages rippled and dried after a soaking, some of them stuck together. An orange circular sticker had OWSL scribbled on it in black marker and so did the top of the book, across the edge of the closed pages. Whomsoever’s it was before, now it belonged to the Occupied Wall St. People’s Library in Zuccotti Park. Selected Translations, 1968-1978 by W.S. Merwin was still in one piece and I like Merwin’s poems so I picked it up to read it.

I could have taken it home; one guy was worried he wouldn’t have time to finish a Lawrence Block book before he had to return to Phoenix so a volunteer librarian told him to take it with him and donate it to Occupy Phoenix when he was finished with it. I read Merwin on a convenient wooden chair in the park because I thought I might read some of these daily books in bookstores and libraries and Occupy Wall St.’s library has a very nice vibe. 

Merwin has done a lot of translating—Pablo Neruda, Dante, Osip Mandelstam, Muso Soseki, Euripides, Rumi, Garcia Lorca, Basho and others. This book is one of several translation collections, ambitious in its range. He includes poems from Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Swedish, American Indian, Quechua (Incan), Txeltal and Tzetzil (Mayan), Eskimo, Malgache (Madagascar), Korean, Chinese, Sanskrit, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu. There are a few lines from Michelangelo, the loveliest: “…even if I were quite blind, I would find you…”

Nicanor Parra wrote in Spanish:

“I’m sad I’ve got nothing to eat / nobody cares about me / there shouldn’t be any beggars / I’ve been saying the same thing for years…”

Osip Mandelstam wrote in Russian:

“Your thin shoulders are for turning red under whips, / turning red under whips, and flaming in the raw cold.

Your child’s fingers are for lifting flatirons / For lifting flatirons and for knotting cords.

Your tender soles are for walking on broken glass, / walking on broken glass, across bloody sands.

And I’m for burning like a black candle lit for you…”

In the preface to the translations, Merwin says of his work: “Without deliberately altering the overt meaning of the original poem, I wanted the translation to represent, with as much life as possible, some aspect, some quality of the poem which made the translator think it was worth translating in the first place.” 

This was a departure from the advice Ezra Pound gave when Merwin visited him in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane where Pound was incarcerated for twelve years as an outspoken and unapologetic political dissident. Pound said to get as close to the original form and language of the poem as possible. Merwin’s ‘possible’ is always infused with the music of the English language he writes in and colored by the music of the poets whose work he translates. The romance languages flow in English; the Mayan translations have the particular rhythm and magic of Mayan myth and syntax; the Asian poets resonate with exquisite imagery and rich symbolism.

A delightful thing about rummaging in tubs of old books for something to read is the inevitable out-of-print gem you will find to taste and savor. Despite the occasional high-energy chants, the constant jazz combo enlivening a nearby circle, the camera-wielding tourists and the difficulty of quiet reflection, you can read in the middle of an occupied park. And the words may make a different kind of sense to you—reading revolutionaries, rebels, nonconformists and passionate poets surrounded by a few yet to find their way into print.

W. S. Merwin  Selected Translations, 1968-1978   Atheneum  1980

In Praise of Libraries

OWS People's Library, Zuccotti Park, October 9, 2011

Libraries are the repositories of the soul of our societies. They hold the wisdom and follies of ages, portraits and snapshots of who we were and are, predictions of who we will become. They are sacred spaces because they are where we keep our stories. Libraries have shelves and shelves of bright keys to imagination and imagination is how we create our worlds.

I have always wanted the entire city of New York to become a library: empty storefronts full of books to borrow with corners for nannies and parents to read to toddlers, book-borrow stands like newsstands on every street, beautiful old buildings like the St. Agnes library in every community, mobile libraries cruising commercial strips and neighborhoods, a free library in every corporate building and condo lobby, library kiosks in the parks. If Gotham dedicated its resources to transforming the city into one huge library, we would be the most literate, intelligent, imaginative, tolerant, peaceful and positive metropolis on the planet–no end to the possibilities.


My favorite energy spot at the Occupy Wall St. encampment in Zuccotti Park is its library. The existence of the OWS People’s Library speaks volumes (even Shakespeare had no problem with the occasional pun) about the mindset and motivation of the 99% protesting in the park. You can donate books. You can borrow books. You can even keep books if you promise to pass them along to someone else when you have finished them. You can sit and read a book. So one day, shortly after my first visit to the library, I did.