When Libraries Are Destroyed,
Bad Memories Drive the Protest
When the New York Police Department raided the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park, Lower Manhattan, last Tuesday, destroying its free makeshift library, it unwittingly joined a sad and brutal roll call of fanatics that stretches back many centuries.
The NYPD became just the newest member of an infamous club that includes the Taliban, German Nazis, the Khmer Rouge, Imperial Japanese forces, The British Empire, the Catholic Church, and an assortment of despots and bloody occupation armies across time, religions, cultures and ideologies.
All at one time or another, have been singled out by history for being responsible of the destruction of millions of books. The volumes will never be recovered or even identified, and those who did away with them exist now mainly under the general banner of scourge. But what has been lost to mankind certainly goes way beyond their horrific deeds.
Even before Gutenberg officially invented the modern print, books were perceived as a threat to power. Thus, the way the police confiscated the 5,000-odd volumes covering a wide array of subjects that had been donated to the OWS movement, was but a small, albeit not new, metaphor that adds dramatic colors to some of the motivations behind the violent raid.
THE THREAT OF WORDS
Starting by the three consecutive episodes of destruction of the mythical Library of Alexandria, whose dates and culprits are still source of vicious debate, up to books, real or imagined, that were branded too ‘dangerous’ to be around and therefore were either burned or kept in secret chambers for centuries, the repetitive aggression against published thoughts seem to encapsulate mankind’s struggle against itself.
Man is capable of creating enduring works of meaning and depth, which inform and dimension our walk on this planet. On a darker side, however, we’re equally capable of swiftly erase them all, perhaps in an obviously fool’s errand task of rescuing a prior state of blissful ignorance.
No wonder that ancient institutions such as the church and the pretty much every military order and secret society that has ever been, are still believed to have control over an inestimable trove of knowledge written by men whose identity and lives may have been lost forever to history.
COOKING THE BOOKS
As the OWS starts building its already third free library, honoring and regarding them as integral companion pieces of the movement, the grim parallel of the destruction of the previous collections with the many similarly despicable events throughout the centuries, however the difference of scale, cannot be missed.
The classic Ray Bradbury novel, Fahrenheit 451, comes first to mind, if one forgets for a minute that the title itself corresponds to the temperature needed to burn books. In it, an authoritarian society of the future (the book was published in 1953, so the future is now, so to speak) outlaws books and firemen are their designated enforcers.
The fact that Bradbury wrote the entire novel on a pay typewriter in the basement of the UCLA’s Powell Library, is but one of the many quirky asides and enduring works that it’s inspired since. That includes the classic François Truffaut film version, and the Michael Moore’s documentary about 9/11.
But it’s another movie, Peter Greenaway’s Prospero Books, an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, that packs the most controversial punch on the issue of books as untouchable world treasures.
The director places Prospero, the tormented father consumed by his failed relationship with his daughter Miranda, as the narrator of the drama. In a a satisfying but risqué dramatic resolution, marvelously performed by the late British actor John Gielgud in the title role, Prospero destroys his books.
Criticism piled up about the scene which, according to some authors, symbolizes an attempt to destroy reality itself. But it could also be interpreted, others argue, as a sobering reminder of the risks of unrestrained power.
If one considers that books can be stand-ins for lives and for memory itself, then when the protagonist exercises his power, he does it in the most deleterious way, effectively erasing from existence what and who he ultimately disagrees with.
THE THIRD EDITION
But not to worry, at least not for now. We’re absolutely not suggesting that members of the NYPD should’ve kept their knowledge of literature and film history current, before invading the OWS encampment. Or that even knowing that they could potentially be compared to some of the historic scourge of mankind would’ve prevented a few donated books from making it to the city’s landfills.
And it would be naive, and frankly, a stretch, to believe that the destruction of what’s known as the OWS People’s Library, third version, is the iconic fact that may indicate the dept of the repression the movement faced in its infancy, circa 2011, for historians and revolutionaries of the future.
We’d, though, be very careful before going around and emulating past documented acts of truculence and brutality, even when not directed at people but to objects, because these things have a way of creating legs and walking on their own.
ONE FOR THE BOOKS
Even for a current low-ranking member of the New York Finest, it’d be a contentious issue, several years from now, to argue with a young relative about one’s role in such an indefensible act. As Nazis and serial killers well know, for certain crimes there’s no such an excuse as, I can’t remember, or it was a long, long time ago.
– But, grandpa, it says here, that it was your precinct that invaded the park that November. Were you there too?