On history, denial, “unpeople,” books and their destruction

This afternoon, I went to the local public library (named “second best” of its size in the U.S.!) to see if I could check out Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.” Hmmm. Two copies: one missing, the other checked out.

I often ask myself: Why haven’t I read this book before?

The first time I got an inkling, and I mean by that an itty bitty inkling, of the real people’s history of the United States, was at the 1967 World’s Fair in Quebec. My husband and I and our two tiny children, one asleep on his father’s back, the other in a stroller, were walking slowly through the Native American pavilion. I can remember the horrible dawning of awareness that slowly engulfed me as I stood reading the displays and viewing the somber-faced portraits, and then, almost as quickly, the sudden shut down of that awareness. I just couldn’t bear to think that we “Americans” had deliberately caused genocide of the indigenous peoples of this land.

Zinn’s extraordinary (so I hear) and very long (752 pages) book that tells what happened from the perspective of the bottom rather than the top wasn’t published until 1980, nearly 14 years after the Quebec Expo. Over one million copies have been sold.

Today I completed the paperwork for the transfer of my bank accounts to a local credit union. The woman I talked to at the credit union, who has worked in banks her entire life, told me, when I asked, that yes, the credit union had had an uptick in new accounts in the past few weeks. She had no idea why. When I told her that the Occupy movement had recommended transferring from big banks to local credit unions, she had no idea what I was talking about. Even when I spelled it out —”Occupy Wall Street”? . . . a protest occupation now in hundreds of cities and towns? . . . just go down tot he library, and you’ll see, just one block away, the Occupy camp at People’s Park? — she still looked totally nonplused.

I was stunned. How could anyone not know? She said she doesn’t “keep up with the news.” I guess I thought this good, good, good news must be traveling through the air, electrifying the atmosphere everywhere. I guess I thought this movement had already shifted the dominant paradigm. NOT! (Hard to believe that, with 68 years under my belt, I’m still so inherently naive.)

Was this lovely, kind woman sitting at the big desk in her own glass-walled office across from me just “in denial,” the way I was in 1967, because she works for a “bank” (the credit union) and doesn’t realize that a credit union is politically preferable to a bank? And if so, is she in denial because her livelihood depends on her not knowing? That, I suspect, is the usual motivation for holding one’s awareness in a locked box.

Not mine, however. No. My denial in 1967 was existential. (That trip to Canada took place about a year prior to my gradual awakening from the trance of social conditioning. Perhaps it was an unconscious precursor. See this post.) Simply: I just couldn’t believe that anyone, much less an entire collection of people could be so venal. Why? I knew about the gas chambers in World War II that killed millions of Jews. And I knew that the U.S. had bombed both Hiroshima and Nagasaki just to show off our new, infinitely more lethal weapon. So how could I have compartmentalized my brain so thoroughly as to not want to pursue the new information that we had also stomped on Native Americans as “unpeople” (Chomsky’s term, see this).

So now I will read Zinn’s book, even if I have to buy it. And maybe I should buy rather than borrow it. When I got home, my houseguest Jim pointed me to the following article. It blew me away. Just what books are being destroyed en masse? Just what history is being erased now? Thanks to Jim and boston.com.

Why Libraries Are Destroying Books En Masse

October 17, 2011
by |Josh Rothman
Writing at the pop-culture website Cracked, librarian S. Peter Davis offers ” Six Reasons Why We’re In Another ‘Book-Burning’ Period in History.” Libraries, he explains, are deluged with new books, running out of money and space, and eager to install lucrative and fun coffeeshops and lounges. As a result, they’re destroying books in huge quantities — and they must do it in secret, to avoid massive protests from professors and the public.

Official seal of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, 1873.Public libraries, university libraries, and even Borders bookstores have opted to destroy unused or unwanted books. They do it en masse, which means that, inevitably, some especially valuable books get destroyed along with the forgotten ones. It’s not just “duplicates and old TV Guides,” Davis writes; “Imagine holding a beautiful, dusty, illustrated volume of Shakespeare printed in the 1700s, a calligraphic message from its long-dead owner inscribed on the inside cover, and throwing it straight in the trash.” Nobody checks these old books out; library “power users” are there primarily for the journal subscriptions.

Libraries, meanwhile, must do this work in secret to prevent bibliophilic interference:

Back in 2004, Victoria University in New Zealand decided that it was going to have to destroy around 130,000 books. But they had a crisis of conscience, and revealed their plans to the academics and the student body. The idea was that they would mark the condemned books with red tape, and if anyone wanted to rescue a book, they needed simply to strike the tape with a black felt pen. Predictably… a professor sent an email around the faculty calling the library “barbarians,” and he led a campaign in which staff and students went through the library armed with felt pens, searching for red tape and marking every single book for retention.

“If you notice a ton of shelves in your library suddenly empty, and they tell you the books have been sent to a warehouse, chances are they’re telling you the truth,” Davis explains. “But what they’re not mentioning is that a hundred thousand books already in the warehouse had to be destroyed to make room for them.” Completely fascinating! Much, much more here.

Further reading: Nicholson Baker on the absurd disaster that was microfilm in The Guardian; ” Six Insane Foreign Memes That Put Lolcats to Shame,” by S. Peter Davis.

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