Andrew Carnegie Would be Proud

I don’t know much about the politics of Occupy Wall Street – and neither, I suspect, do many of the protesters – but the encampment at Zuccotti Park is also a fascinating urban experiment, a tiny, tiny town in the midst of the big, big city. It’s got a communal kitchen and an infirmary and a legal office. Also, quaintly warming to my antiquarian literary heart, it’s got a library.

Books were precious once upon a time. An extravagant luxury of the 18th century’s 1% might be a few hundred volumes – the number and many of the same titles that a well-educated college student of today graduates with. Mass production had been a possibility since Guttenberg, but until mass literacy arrived there was no use for industrial book-making techniques. The first steps toward widespread dissemination of literature came from so-called lending libraries, which rented out best-sellers of the day. Still, access to books was unusual for those of modest means. Enter steel baron Andrew Carnegie. One of the wealthiest men of his era, he devoted much of his fortune to a cause that he believed to be of the greatest benefit to humanity – free libraries, thousands of which sprouted across the English-speaking landscape.

And just as it seemed natural to the industrialist/philanthropist to add this missing element to the Gilded Age, so a  handful of protesters in Lower Manhattan thought likewise. The library in Zuccotti Park started accidentally. Someone must have finished reading a book on one of the stone ledges and left it there, idly or in the spirit of giving. And books are a bit like magnets; one attracts another. Eventually there were enough that “a woman named Betty,” apparently a professional librarian, perhaps apocryphal, undertook to categorize them. Now, there’s a core of ten to fifteen volunteers who work the bins (they were discussing shelves the afternoon I spent with them, debating the merits of piping vs. wood, the former durable, the latter sustainable) and another ten or fifteen who show up irregularly. About a thousand books a day are lent out and about a thousand more arrive, so many that they’ve had to find storage space elsewhere. To put these numbers in perspective, a suburban library I know lends out about 400 items a day, the majority of which are “media,” a.k.a. videos. And one small college library sends out about 200 books daily. Given budgetary concerns, the intake is much smaller; for the college it’s in the neighborhood of 25. In other words, Occupy Wall Street may have the fastest growing library in America.

The collection began as one might expect with the obvious political tomes – Al Franken, Howard Zinn – and yet it expanded and developed as the demonstration itself, becoming more eclectic by the day. Now, there are subsections devoted to gender studies and racial matters, but there are also zines and mysteries and Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, $35 new, $21.46 plus shipping at Amazon, as well as serious fiction ranging from Cynthia Ozick’s The Pagan Rabbi to Evelyn Waugh’s evisceration of British aristocracy in Brideshead Revisited. Yet perhaps the most appropriate single volume I saw, indeed the first to catch my eye as I wandered through the aisles, was a biography of Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who crossed the ocean to explore the radical social experiment he chronicled in Democracy in America.

Yet the atmosphere in Zuccotti Park is so fervent – one person called it “a unique confluence of joy and anger” – that nearly any book in the bins echoes with cosmic appropriateness or edgy irony. There’s Fahrenheit 451 and The Grapes of Wrath and The Complete Stories of Jorge Luis Borges that includes his brain-twisting “The Library of Babel.” Somehow, it’s just right that Patti Smith would bring an autographed copy of her memoir, Just Kids. Even Rewriting History, Dick Morris’ hatchet job on Hilary Clinton, oddly belongs along with multiple copies of Blood Club, a Gothic thriller by Walt Schnable, maybe donated by the author.

Nor is the library reserved for the previously published. There’s a Xeroxed anthology of Occupy poetry, written by a batch of unacknowledged legislators in the midst of the tents and tour busses and reporters reporting on other reporters and half a dozen carts selling everything from smoothies to felafel to “99% vegetarian” food, the other 1% perhaps consisting of capitalist pig. I deliberately haven’t read their anthology – afraid of disappointment after noting an unfortunate grammatical mistake on the first page – yet they obviously care about two things: the shape of the world and language.  Language is of the essence to the “occupation,” the word brilliantly connoting both militancy and domesticity.

Like the anthology of its poetry, the protests at Occupy Wall Street are inchoate and occasionally idiotic, yet they’re also inspirational. The grassroots phenomena spreads to other cities while the original participants wrestle with unexpected difficulties. In fact, I overheard one librarian declare in strangely un-P.C. fashion, “To not have power is retarded.” My ears perked until I realized that he was talking about obtaining a generator with funds allocated from Occupy’s communal treasury.

Yes, there are callow diatribes and there’s more than a smidgeon of jealousy. Some of the protestors want Warren Buffet’s money even if he wants to give more of it to the government in taxes. Yet one of the sweetest, most emblematic tables on the site read simply, “Mutual Responsibility: Let’s Chat.”

My sense is that the most sophisticated of those under the vast umbrella that welcomes everyone from socialists to anarchists to the fellow with the “Bring Back Arrested Development” placard are not really advocating specific fiscal or social policies. Instead, they’re voicing a deep and legitimate pain at systemic problems they can’t hope to fix, and begging real world policy-makers to take note of these problems to work for communal betterment.

In the meantime, they seem cheerful, helpful, benign, embodying a DIY ethic and assuming that if something needs doing, someone will step up and do it, just like the library. Whether the Occupy movement will have any enduring effect will depend on how it manages the force it’s set in motion; personally I’d suggest that the organizers declare victory and migrate to other, maybe electronic, venues to expand their remarkable community before it turns into a frozen joke. However they operate, they have the tools that Andrew Carnegie originally made available to the public. What the arch-capitalist and Betty the librarian share is the recognition that the first steps to solving a problem are for someone to write about it and someone else to read about it. I’d advise anyone who cares about the future of democracy in America to go downtown and check out de Tocqueville.

Note: The previous pages were written at leisure over the few weeks up to Monday, November 14th.  Now, on the morning of the 15th, they require one more comment. Here it is:

Or not.