Sunday, January 29, 2006

Codrescu Speech in its Entirety.

After I made the post below regarding Andrei Codrescu's speech to the ALA, I decided to drop him a note. I asked him to send me a copy of his speech in its entirety to be published on this blog. Within a couple of hours I received his response with the following attached in a word document. Emphasis is mine.

by Andrei Codrescu


Thank you for –once again—giving me the opportunity and pleasure to address some of my favorite people. I feel that you and I, writers and librarians, along with publishers and booksellers, are keeping the flame of literacy flickering in these pixillated times. I could write a whole book about librarians I have known and loved, from Transylvania to New Orleans. in fact, I did write, not one but several sections in several books, including my new one, about the mysteries and privileges of your profession. In my novel, “Casanova in Bohemia,” Giacomo Casanova is a librarian at the court of Count Waldstein at Dux (or Duchkov now in the Czech Republic) as he indeed was, in the last years of his life. A librarian makes a forceful appearance in “Wakefield,” my most recent novel – she is Wakefield’s daughter. My early memoirs are populated by librarians. It is therefore with great affection that I stand here.

I hate repeating mtself, so I’ll try to say a few things that are fresh for me and new enough to warrant discussion. There are three questions that I put to myself and I now put to you, in the hope of elucidating some part of the future of libraries and librarians. They are:

1. How is a librarian better than a mouse click?
2. What can library buildings do besides holding books?
3. What does the “freedom to read” mean to the ALA?

To the first question, How is a librarian better than a mouse click?, the answer is, not much and much more. GOOGLE will give anyone the information they need a lot faster and without having to go to the library. So it’s unfair for a human being to compete with a machine on this field, because the machine never gets tired and doesn’t waste time caring about the quality of the information. What’s more caring is not all that necessary if it’s just about pure and expedient information.

I had a poet friend, Hunce Voelcker, who loved the Poet Hart Crane and out of this sheer love he produced a concordance in the days before computers did that sort of thing. The computer concordance, which took about 12 minutes, came out at the same time as Hunce’s five-year long labor of love. Hunce found two mistakes in the computer version. That’s what all his caring got him, factually. But, in truth, Hunce didn’t do his concordance for factual reasons: he did it because he wanted to feel the weight of the words themselves, how many times Crane had used them, what that meant to the poet, what that means to poetry, in general, to Hunce’s poetry in particular. Namely, he counted for the sake of poetry not for the sake of numbers. To anyone wanting to know just how many times Hart Crane used the conjunction “with” this sort of distinction wouldn’t make a bit of difference. But who, I ask you, would want to know, and for what reason exactly, how many times Hart Crane used the conjunction “with”? Out of the handful of people, a hundred at most, to speak optimistically here, including academics, who have actually read Hart Crane’s poetry in its entirety, a much smaller number, perhaps two people, to speak very optimistically, might actually care how many times Hart Crane wrote “with.” I mean living people, because Hunce Voelcker is no longer with us. And out of those two, one of them would have to be a linguist and the other – an insane person.

We’ll leave the linguist aside for a while, with his concordance, and examine the insane person. This insane person is very familiar to all public library librarians: he or she uses the library as a living room and as a command post for the sending and reception of cosmic signals. I’m sure that you have carried on innumerable discussions about the proper ways to deal with homeless crazies who think of libraries as their churches. Why they don’t take refuge in churches instead of libraries is a very good question: perhaps the sensitive apparatus of the mentally ill prefers secularism to religion, or maybe church custodians aren’t as kind as librarians who may be more christian than the declared sort. In any case, the crazy who has received a special message that the number of “with”s in Crane’s poetry are an indispensible piece in the universal puzzle, should have your full attention. Here is the only person, who for reasons not immediately understandable, has chosen to function outside the machine. Your public librarian must now be a poet, as well as a nurse and a social worker, three job descriptions that lie, at least in part, outside the incoming rule of Google and Pfizer. Whatever Google cannot provide, the librarian needs to, namely a great deal of humanity and poetic understanding. In addition to being a poet, a nurse, and a social worker, the librarian of the future must have a passion for esoteric literature –such as modern poetry—in order to feel at home in precisely those areas (smaller and smaller) of the human psyche that lie outside the machine.

Which brings me to question No. 2, What can library buildings do besides holding books? The Katrina tragedy is sadly instructive here. Public libraries are indispensible to poor communities like New Orleans, because they serve as cultural centers for people who still have the integrity not to surrender to television and video games. Public library buildings are also useful for sheltering a great number of people. If anyone in government would have given any thought to public libraries in New Orleans, they might have built them to serve as shelters in a disaster. The Storm that ripped the roof right off the scandalous poverty in our city, also exposed the shabby treatment of programs intended to better community life. The complete lack of foresight and imagination by the bureaucrats in charge of public monies is beyond appalling. It’s criminal. Libraries may not be the first priority in a city beset by thousands of personal tragedies and hundreds of major and urgent needs, but they are an irreplaceable piece of the complex puzzle of urban civilisation. Take away the library and what you have is a mindless shopping mall.

Existing and future library buildings have to become cultural centers that emphasize those aspects of humanity that lie outside the machine. I know that many libraries do this now: there are children’s readings, poetry readings, lectures, discussion groups, etc. In existing libraries, the bookshelves get in the way of some of these activities, so there is a bit of inbuilt inhibition that can put a damper on a thing like a poetry reading, which has an occasional wine-spill attached to it. The libraries of the future should pay particular attention to the coming library-without-books, which just like the museum-without-art (the J. Paul Getty Museum in LA, for instance) emphasize the architecture over the (somewhat) dated function of the building. In the Library of the Future -- the Library Without Books-- there should be dormitories and socialising rooms for those (fewer and fewer) souls who haven’t been captured by Google. In addition, poetry readings and lectures should occur in glass rooms that give an unimpeded view of green spaces outside for dreaming. The poet or the lecturer should be only one of the possible focus points of the room.

The library of the future should also be mobile – made of inflatable materials that can be carried from neighborhood to neighborhood or to remote areas. In other words, The Book Mobile should be expanded to accommodate crowds and to be as big and as architecturally interesting as possible. The events produced in the Book Mobile Library Without Books of the Future should not be limited to events tied in to pre-existing books: they should encourage writing and encourage also the kind of events that inspire writers, such as circuses and music. Also, hours should be set aside so that thementally illl, renamed “seers”, have regular consultation hours when they can enlighten people about the significance of such things as the conjunction “with” in Hart Crane’s poetry. In short, librarians need to feed Google brand-new information instead of letting Google turn them into googly gofers. And the way to do that is to produce culture through the buildings and the creation in situ of new reading materials. Technology will make it possible to publish and broadcast all that is produced in the library, so that instead of being just repositories of information, libraries could be active participants in culture. This is the only way to beat Google: to bequeath to it the repository and guiding functions that libraries used to have, and to transform libraries into producers of culture.

So – while librarians will need to reinvent themselves along with libraries, there is a certain power that librarians have in our society that comes from this association, the American Library Association, which is a force in american life through its well-read membership and through the positions it takes on social issues.

I was born in a place where people were forbidden to read most of what we consider the fundamental books of Western civilisation. Not only were we forbidden to read authors like James Joyce, but being found in possession of a book such as George Orwell’s “1984” could lend one in prison for years. My good luck was to meet Dr. Martin in my adolescence. Dr. Martin was a retired professor who had collected and kept in his modest three room appartment the best of inter-war Romanian literature. He had all the poets who had been blacklisted by the communist authorities: Lucian Blaga, Aron Cotrus, Tristan Tzara, Gherasim Luca. He owned the complete works in Romanian and French of the religious comparatist Mircea Eliade and the philosopher Emil Cioran. Also among his treasures were translations of Sigmund Freud, Robert Musil, Klebnikov, George Orwell, and Paul Claudel. In the Stalinist period, which did not end in Romania until 1964, and then only briefly, any of the books in Dr. Martin’s library could have earned him years of hard labor. In addition to owning them, he lent them to us, young high-school writers, who absorbed them thirstily and read them deeply because we knew what risks our older friend –and ourselves—were taking. Those books influenced me profoundly because they were essential to my intellectual development. I became a writer because I read forbidden books. Books forbidden by an authoritarian government are the only reason I am now standing before you.

I knew about the American Library Association for a long time. For me, the ALA has stood, along with the ACLU, the Helsinki Human Rights organization, and Amnesty International, as the guarantors of American democracy. For the more than three-and-a-half decades I spent in the United States, I’ve taken my right to read and freedom of expression very seriously. I’ve seen many attempts on it, most recently by Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which has raised, with good reason, the ire of librarians. The ALA fight for the freedom to read, against censorship and the Patriot Act has been one of its magnificent accomplishments. Another has been the promotion of human rights and intellectual freedom worldwide. To quote from the ALA policy manual, “freedom of expression is an an inalienable human right, necessary to self-government, vital to the resistence to oppression, crucial to the cause of jusrice, and further, that the principles of freedom of expression should be applied to libraries and librarians throughout the world.”

Given these crystal-clear position it was with a great deal of dismay that I learned that the American Library Association has taken no action to condemn the imprisonment of librarians, the banning of books, the repression of expression and the torture of dissidents only 90 miles away from our shores, in Cuba. In March 1988, two residents of Las Tunas, Ramon Colas and Berta Mexidor, opened a private library in their home, dedicated to offering cubans books not officially available. The Felix-Varela Library was the first of a network of private libraries that were established by volunteers in Cuba to bring light to the oppressive darkness of Castro’s police state. 103 libraries and 182,000 registered patrons were affiliated with the expanding Independent Libraries Project by the end of 2002. From the very beginning of their existence, the private librarians were subjected to threats, harassments, evictions, arrests, police raids, and the seizure of book collections, books that disappeared so quickly they could have only been burned. In November 1999 Ramon Colas was arrested. Amnesty International declared him a “prisoner of conscience.” Hundreds of other librarians were arrested not long afterward, and their libraries and collections were confiscated. The ALA’s International Rights Committee looked, rather late, into the dire situation of the Cuban librarians. On January 13, 2001, the Latin American subcommitee of the IRC conducted a hearing at the ALA Midwinter conference in Washington where reports on the worsening situation in Cuba were presented by witnesses using accounts from Human Rights Watch, Reporters Sans Frontieres, Amnesty International, as well as press reports from the Washington Post and the Associated Press. People like Vaclav Havel, the hero of the Velvet Revolution that brought down the vicious regime of Chekoslovakia, Lech Walesa, winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, and former president of Poland, and Arpad Goncz, former President of Hungary, joined to condemn Castro’s “imprisonment of Cubans for “merely for daring to express an opinion rather than the official one.” Even well-known leftist dissidents such as Naom Chomsky, with whom I personally disagree on many issues, historian Howard Zinn, and and philosopher Cornel West have condemned the arrests of librarians in Cuba and the “shockingly long prison sentences…imposed after unfair trials.” Amazingly enough, the final report of the ALA declined to recognise the new Cuban libraries as “libraries” and the librarians themselves were refered to as “individuals associated with these collections.” Since then, those “individuals” have been subject to brutal imprisonment and their books have been disappeared. The ALA councillors have remained silent on the issue to this day. Am I hallucinating? Is this the same American Library Association that stands against censorship and for freedom of expression everywhere? There are some people like the civil liberties columnist Nat Hentoff, and Robert Kent, founder of Friends of Cuban Libraries, who have accused the ALA leadership of a coverup. I hope not. This organization cannot logically condone the imprisonment and torture of librarians in Cuba, approve of Fidel Castro’s order 88, which denies all the rights we cherish, while acting, quite sensibly, against provision 215 of the Patriot Act.

I went to Cuba in 1997, just before a papal visit later that year, and I was appalled by the lack of books. I was reminded of my poor, sad Romania in the 1950s, a dismal prison where food for body and mind were nearly inexistent. Cubans were literally starving physically and intellectually. Looking through the desultory pages of the Communist Party’s official paper, Granma, reminded me also of the pathetic simulacra of phony writing that stained the pages of Romania’s official papers during the years of the dictatorship: there were nothing but production reports, interviews with El Maximum Leader, lies about the bright future, and not a shred of truth about the actual conditions that people lived in. In Romania, after 1989, Romanians were able to read, with astonishment, just how horrific things had been for them, just how much they’d been lied to, and just how much they had MISSED. They avidly consumed books like George Orwell’s 1984. Cuba today is the Romania of my growing up and I only hope for the sake of the Cubans that a hundred thousand Dr. Martins are ready to rise to take the place of those who had been arrested and tortured by the Cuban regime. I also hope that, in keeping with its tradition and charter of defending the freedom to read and freedom of expression, the American Library Assoociation will immediately pass a resolution condemning the Castro regime for flagrant violations of basic human rights. To not do so is self-defeating and wipes out any credibility the ALA might have in fighting the much milder provisions of the Patriot Act. Not to speak of the fact that it’s much easier to fight for freedom to read in a country where every book is available, while it is much more difficult to make meaningful a starement in a place where books are an enemy of the state.

Those would be my answers to the three questions,namely:

  1. How is a librarian better than a mouse click?
  2. What can library buildings do besides holding books?
  3. What does the “freedom to read” mean to the ALA?
But all three questions resolve into one, as far as the ALA is concerned, namely: do we believe that we can survive in the 21st century, and if so, are we going to be active and imaginative enough to make a difference both to people who are forgetting to read and to people who are forbidden to read?

If we can, we are in business.


Alan said...

Interesting how he has received no notice from the ALA crowd for his thought-provoking comments about libraries and communities.

Patricio Texidor said...

Hey, this is great! I've been following some of the links by Val Prieto on this. My curiosity about the actual speech got the best of me and I did a search. I recognized your site from Babalu and went right for it. Thanks for the post. It really helps to read what Codrescu said. It's amazing! This guy Gorman has egg on his face big time. Keep up the good work. Sorry I have not visited before. I'll come often in the future.