"More than machinery, we need humanity."
Have you ever found yourself at a gathering at which a speaker says something along the lines of “it’s important to read”? Or perhaps you’ve found yourself at a gathering at which multiple speakers echo this sentiment? It is the type of exhortation that is often met with murmurs of approval, some nodding heads, and sometimes even applause. The statement may be particularly palatable insofar as it is not actually asking terribly much from people – it is not asking them for a large amount of cash or to engage in a new form of activity, all it asks is that people read.
The types of meetings where the aforementioned reminders seem to crop up most often tend to be of the activist/political variety. And thus the context in which the command “read!” occurs is not from a teacher counseling incoming students that they need to do the assigned reading if they wish to pass, but from people reminding their listeners that being informed is part (though certainly not all) of being politically engaged. Therefore it might seem as though what is being counseled is simply that people read the news on a regular basis. However, the comment “read” is quite frequently paired with another word such that the statement looks more like this: “read books.”
Recently I found myself at a meet-up/organizing event for a political candidate – held at a beer garden in my neighborhood – and though it was an event ostensibly about helping a specific candidate the tenor of the meeting was focused upon the need for those present not just to get involved for the sake of the candidate but for those present to get involved with activist causes. Local activists from the Black Lives Matter movement and the Fight for Fifteen spoke to the assembled group about taking part in upcoming actions alongside volunteers wearing shirts emblazoned with the candidate’s name reminding everybody to register to vote (for the primary and the general election). From an activist perspective it was quite interesting how the gathering was as much (if not more) a general call for political engagement as it was a call to help support a particular candidate. Indeed, the whole thing was rather reminiscent of a well-worn quote from Eugene V. Debs, namely:
“I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition.”
The tenor of the event was squarely focused around all those gathered using their own “heads” and “hands.”
But what does this have to do with reading?
One of the themes that was touched on by many of the speakers at the event – and which came up in many of the post-speaker discussions – was the importance of reading. And while there were tables at the beer garden bearing stacks of various pieces of campaign literature, there was not too much “reading” on offer. Of course the assumption may well have been that people had books at home, or that people could stick their heads into a bookshop or a nearby library, but ultimately what this really represents is a missed opportunity. If people at an event are going to tout the importance of reading, why not have books at the event? A miniature, temporary, library that can be put out alongside campaign flyers can do a lot to put things to be read right in front of those who have just been told to remember to “read.”
This may sound like an organizational hassle but it truly does not need to be one. Indeed, the more ad hoc and participatory this is the better. The main thing that it requires is a little bit of space and the willingness of five people. The space is so that a surface can be reserved for the laying out of books, and as for the people – well that is also fairly easy. If you know that you are planning on heading to a campaign/activist event of the meeting variety (as opposed to a less stationary type of event such as a protest march) – before you go to it consult your bookshelf. Are there books here that you have already read and which you will not be reading again? Are there books you have accumulated which you will not be reading any time soon? Are there duplicates that you have somehow accrued? Consult your shelves and, if you can, bring two books to the even with you. These need not be new books, though it certainly helps if their theme is at least somewhat related to that of the gathering to which you are going. Contact your friends and acquaintances who are going to the same gathering and encourage them to do the same. If you bring two books, and four other people bring two books each, than there will be ten books – which is a nice start to a little library. Lay the books out on a table with some kind of sign indicating that the books are for prolonged borrowing, and then at the end of the event check the table again – if either of your two books remains (or if there are other books that look interesting to you) take them home with you. Repeat this for the next gathering you go to, and the one after that, and you may well see that this miniature library is quickly growing from a handful of people bringing books to a couple dozen people bringing books. This way when a speaker stands before the crowd and says “it’s important to read” they can immediately add “and we even have a little library of stuff here today!”
Obviously, such a small assortment of books is no replacement for a well-maintained public library, nor is it necessarily superior to a labor-of-love activist library – but a library can function wonderfully as an activist tool whether it has ten books, fifty books, a hundred books, or a thousand books. Books are easy to share, and in movements that care about mutual aid, books can represent an easy way of putting this principle into action. Furthermore, one of the particular benefits of a “if you can, bring two books” library is that it is small, transportable, and the shared responsibility of its participants. When such a library is not in use it does not need a big storage space to hold it – the books can simply be placed back on their home shelves until it is time for them to once more be part of the mini library.
Reading is important. And though it sounds so uncontroversial as to be banal, there can be something to be said for reminding people that reading is a part (though certainly not all) of being politically engaged.
So what could be better than ensuring that people who hear the comment “read” are readily supplied with things to read?
Go look at your bookshelf – which two books are you willing to share?