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“I Wanted Something Productive to Do": Creating Space for Books and Learning at Occupy Wall Street

Education is at the heart of the Occupy Wall Street movement, from the student loan bubble to the library and teach-ins at the center of the park.

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Actuarially, the Tea Party is a movement of the past in mourning for a lost world and the good life that went with it.  All you have to do is look at the sudden, post-2008 burst of poverty in the suburbs, that golden beacon of the post-World War II American dream, to know that something unprecedented is underway.

Once upon a time, no one imagined that an American world of home ownership and good jobs, of cheap gas and cheaper steaks, would ever end.  Nonetheless, it was kneecapped over the last few decades and it’s not coming back.  Not for you or your children, no matter what happens economically.

So don’t kid yourself: whether you know it or not, young as you are, you’re in mourning, too, or Occupy Wall Street wouldn’t exist. Unlike the Tea Party, however, you are young, which means that you're also a movement of the unknown future, which is your strength.

Self-Education U.

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.

 
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