03 June 2007

NY times today...

bill over at rave has posted up an excellent entry regarding last week's book burning at prospero's books. he highlights something that i keep noticing in my jaunts about the net,
"The local outcry about the book burning event makes that point. The Kansas City Star has received a large number of letters to the editor condemning the book burning. The fact that supposedly literate people condemned the event proved the point it made: that people are losing the ability for critical thinking. The complainers only read the headlines or only watched a 30 second TV news story that left out what was said about thought in America.

All that registered in their brains was: Omigod, book burning! Those guys are bad. Why don't they donate the books to charity?

If you attended the event or read the entire story in the newspaper, you would know that they tried to donate the books, that nobody wanted them. You would know that they were trying to give them away or sell them for a pittance. If you paid attention, you would have understood what they were saying by burning the books."

and so it goes... perhaps this NY times article will further clear up the confusion.... or perhaps people will only continue to read a headline and not think about the point of it all. i just don't know. what scares me more than burning a book is that over half of americans don't read anything that isn't required of them - and that 22 million potential readers have disappeared in the last decade. this has been proven to directly link into inaction in community, civic and artistic life. THAT, my friends, is the true disgrace.

by the way - if you want to further literacy efforts in kansas city, i know these folks need you:
click here.

A Requiem for Reading in a Smoldering Pyre of Books

Published: June 3, 2007


Ángel Franco/The New York Times
Store owners Will Leathem, left, and Tom Wayne.

A few days ago, over the Memorial Day weekend, Tom Wayne and Will Leathem held a barbecue of sorts in front of their used-book store. A squirt of lighter fluid, the flick of a Bic and — whoof! — flames began to dance from their pyre of books.

Books, they discovered, do not burn well. Books, it seems, tend to smolder.

This is just one of the lessons the men have learned since setting fire to various volumes, including novels by Tom Clancy and Dean Koontz, an antiquated manual for Kansas educators and — Mr. Wayne took particular delight in this — a nonfiction book called “The Hot Zone.”

More books would have gone up in smoke — from “Pat Nixon: The Untold Story,” by Julie Nixon Eisenhower, to “On the Trail of Adventure,” owned long ago by a boy who neatly printed his name in pencil on the inside flap — had not the Kansas City firefighters arrived to point out that the bookstore owners did not have a permit. Not that there is a permit to burn books.

A heated discussion ensued in front of the store. Then came the unrolling of a fire hose and — whoosh! Ashes everywhere, as if to cover in soot those who would dare to burn the written word.

Mr. Wayne, 47, and Mr. Leathem, 45, describe themselves as bibliophiles. They say they often sponsor readings at their bookstore and write poetry in their spare time. Mr. Leathem even owns a small publishing company. “We feel the power of language,” he explains. “You don’t get into used books because it’s the most lucrative work.”

Their holiday bonfire was not intended to pay perverse homage to “Fahrenheit 451,” they are quick to say. But to understand, if not embrace, why book lovers would burn books, they say that one must flip back a few pages.

For years Mr. Leathem was a political consultant who worked for, among others, John Ashcroft, the former Republican governor and senator from Missouri and later the attorney general. But by 1997 Mr. Leathem had detected an inner void not filled by politics, so he and a partner opened a bookstore called Prospero’s Books, in a funky corner of the Westport neighborhood.

The partner dropped out and Mr. Wayne stepped in, earning his partnership through sweat equity. Years earlier he had left the world of commercial real estate to save his soul, he says, and now was a jack-of-all-trades, often seen driving around the neighborhood in a rusty 1971 Olds Delta 88 convertible.

Books are just things, paper bricks of commerce taking up room. But they are also holy vessels, containing the written articulation of our experiences and dreams, allowing us to point to an arrangement of words and exclaim: “Yes! That’s it exactly!”

These were the competing realities of books that the partners soon faced. With a sense of responsibility tinged by guilt, they assumed the inventory of other used-book stores giving up the fight, and accepted the books trundled in by students looking to trade or homeowners looking to tidy with a clean conscience. Soon they had accumulated nearly 50,000 books.

The boxes of books filling a basement corner of their 120-year-old brick building eventually were moved to a storage unit costing $150 a month to rent, and then to a basement of a loft building owned by a friend. “You get to the point where it’s truly Sisyphean, and you don’t want to do it any more,” Mr. Wayne says.

The men say they tried to give away books in bulk that were either not selling or in overabundance — to no avail. When a friend was sent to state prison, for example, they tried to donate books to the correctional system, but were denied. When they donated books to a local fund-raising event, some well-meaning person bought up most of those books and left them at the Prospero’s doorstep.

Then, earlier this year, a thought flickered in Mr. Wayne’s head: Burn ’em.

The two book lovers decided they could make a cultural statement about the decline of literary reading in the United States, where, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, fewer than half the adults read even one novel or play or short story a year that is not required for work or school.

They took comfort in knowing that book fairies do not magically make overstock disappear, that books are quietly but routinely destroyed by publishers. And they adopted as their motto a quote they attributed to the poet Joseph Brodsky: “There are worse crimes than burning books. One is not reading them.”

Last Sunday morning they grabbed some boxes from storage, not caring — or, perhaps, not daring — to see which books were being sacrificed. Then, at 4 p.m., and with the cameras of local television stations rolling, they began to burn books they said no one wanted. As they did so, a few people rushed to rescue some books from the piles of literary kindling-in-waiting.

A few days after the book-burning, Mr. Wayne and Mr. Leathem sat in their upstairs office and discussed the blowback: more than 5,000 e-mail messages already, some angry, some sympathetic, many offering to take books off their hands. A soldier in Iraq wrote to say he needed books, and Mr. Leathem wrote back to say he understood, brother, and would be sending along some books for free.

As they talked about the possibility of another “burn,” a cleaning van across the street suddenly burst into flames. The two men watched as the fire quickly consumed the vehicle, popping the windshield, melting the upholstery. It was frightening, and it was only a car.

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