It's not often the Professor gets a ringside seat to a media firestorm but that's exactly what happened this weekend when my friends at Prospero's Books
in Kansas City decided to have a book burning to draw attention to declining literacy in the United States
. The event was covered by the local news and then picked up by the AP. I spent most of Memorial Day behind the counter at the store with noted troublemaker Jason Ryberg
fielding calls from all over the country (and more than a few from overseas) as people rang with their concerns, blessings and outrage.
Many people understood the point the bookstore was trying to make - many others decidedly did not. Burning books promotes a visceral response in people, more so than any other method of disposal. We pointed out to upset callers (and more than a few angry bloggers) that libraries and bookstores fill dumpsters full of books every month with nary a peep from the public, but somehow books rotting in a landfill doesn't get under people's skins like throwing a book on a barbeque. That really
pisses people off. Of course, anyone who has ever worked in a used bookstore immediately understood what was happening. It is hard to explain to someone who has never done it the sheer physical exertion involved with just moving 20,000 books, let alone storing, sorting, and pricing them. "Just give them away!" people cried. Well, they tried that. Libraries didn't want them. Charities turned them down and, oddly, so did prisons. You'd think a reading prison populace would be a safer prison populace but there seem to be a variety of barriers involved with getting books to prisoners. The book burning did open up some other avenues, such as getting books to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and a service that seems to specialize in getting books into prisons despite the red tape. The guys at the book store are looking into these options.
The burning has recieved quite a bit of notice from blogs literary and otherwise. Here
is a thread at Metafilter and here
is the Slashdot equivalent. A Google Blog Search for "Prospero's Books"
will also give you an idea of the tenor of the debate. Oh, and here is the Prospero's Books MySpace page
if you're into that sort of thing, complete with thoughtful blog entries and replies, as well as video of the event.