Field of Science

A book burning in Palo Alto

This is my latest monthly column for 3 Quarks Daily. As a book lover it wasn't easy for me to write this, but it also made me realize how bad it can get when it gets really bad, and how much we should fight tooth and nail to prevent this kind of scenario - or even partial elements of it - from becoming reality. One point I want to get across is how everyone can be complicit in these developments, including people who detest them. The biggest danger is not in government or corporations taking control of our lives; it's in us willingly ceding control to these entities through self-censorship and self-denial, all done under the name of some innocent ideology.

The flames crackled high and mighty, scalping the leaves from the oak trees, embracing bark and beetles in their maw of carbonized glimmer. The remains of what had been lingered at the bottom, burnt to the sticky nothingness of coagulated black blood. The walls of the stores and restaurants shone brightly, reflecting back the etherized memory of letters and words flung at them. Seen from the branches of the trees, filtered through incandescent fire, the people below were mere dots, ants borne of earthly damnation. A paroxysm of a new beginning silently echoed through the cold air. Palo Alto stood tall and brightly lit tonight.

Bell’s Books, a mainstay of the town for a hundred years, projected its ghostly, flickering shell across the square, its walls stripped of everything that ever dwelt on them, now pale shadows of a dimming past. A few months back they had come to the store, crew cuts and stiff ties, smiles of feigned concerns cutting across the room like benevolent razors. As a seller of used and antiquarian books Bell’s posed a particular problem, riddled through and through as it was with undesirables. The owner, an old woman who looked like she had been there since the beginning of time, was told quietly and with no small degree of sympathy how they did not want to do this but how they needed to cart out most of her inventory, especially because of its historical nature.

“We’re sorry, ma’am, but ever since they passed the addendum our directives have grown more urgent. And please don’t take this personally since yours is not the only collection to be cataloged: over the last few weeks we have repeated this exercise at most of the area’s stores and libraries. To be fair, they are offering healthy compensation for your efforts, and you should be hearing back from the grievances office very soon.”

With that, three Ryder trucks filled with most of the books from Bell’s had disappeared into the waning evening, the old woman standing in the door, the wisps of sadness on her face looking like they wanted to waft into the air and latch on to the gleaming skin of the vehicles. What happened to her since then, where she went and what she did was anybody’s guess. But the space where Bell’s stood had already been sold to an exciting new health food store.

Addendum XIV to the First Amendment had passed three months ago with almost unanimous approval from both parties. In an age of fractured and tribal political loyalties, it had been a refreshingly successful bipartisan effort to reach across the aisle. In some sense it was almost a boring development, since large parts of the First dealing with the right to peaceably assemble had been left unaltered. The few new changes added some exceptions to the hallowed Constitutional touchstone; these included an exception for public decency, another one for offending group sensibilities, and a third one for protection of citizens from provocative or offensive material. That last modification had been solidly backed by data from a battery of distinguished psychologists and sociologists from multiple academic centers, hospitals and government agencies who had demonstrated in double blind studies how any number of literary devices, allusions and historical references produced symptoms especially among the young that were indistinguishable from those of generalized anxiety disorder. Once the Surgeon General had certified the problem as a public health emergency, the road to determined political action had been smoothed over.

Most importantly, Addendum XIV had been a triumph of the people’s will. Painless and quick, it was being held up as an exemplar of representative democracy. The change had been catalyzed by massive public demonstrations of a magnitude that had not been seen since the last war. These demonstrations had begun in the universities as a response against blatant attacks on the dignity of their students, marshaled through the weaponization of words. The fire had then spread far and wide, raging across cities and plains and finally setting the hearts and minds of senators and congressmen ablaze; whether through fear or through common sense was at this point irrelevant. In what was a model example of the social contract between elected public officials and the people, much of the final language in Addendum XIV had been left almost unchanged from drafts that emerged from spirited and productive town hall meetings. It was grassroots government at its best. After years of being seen as almost a pariah, the country could again expect the world to look at it with renewed admiration as a nation of laws and decent people.

The police had put a perimeter around the fire, cordoning it off and trying their best to prevent spectators from approaching too close. But they were having a hard time of it since the whole point of the event was as a community-building exercise where the locals contributed and taught each other. An old cherry picker had been recruited to drop its cargo into the fire from top, but the real action belonged to the people. Children and old alike were cautiously approaching the bright burning flames and tossing in their quota and the younger crowd was flinging everything in quite enthusiastically. Parents who were trying to carefully keep their gleeful children from getting too close were simultaneously balancing the delicate act of teaching their kids how to do their part as civic-minded citizens. A mother was gently helping her four-year-old pick a slim volume and toss it into the gradually growing conflagration while the father stood nearby, smiling and returning the child’s eager glances. It was hard to contain the crowd’s enthusiasm as they obeyed the overt guidelines of the government and the silent dictates of their conscience. The police knew that the people were doing the right thing, so they finally became resigned to occasionally helping out the crowd rather than trying to prevent them from being singed by the heat. An officer took out his pocketknife and knelt to help a man cut the recalcitrant piece of twine that was tying his sheath of tomes together.

Based on the official state and federal guidelines, everyone had filled up their boxes and crates and SUVs and driven here. Driven here from Fremont and Berkeley — hallowed ground of the movement’s sacred origins — and some from as far as Livermore and Fresno, even braving the snaking line of cars on the Dumbarton Bridge to the East. They cursed under their breath for not being allowed to organize similar local events in their own cities, but the government wanted to build community spirit and did not want to dilute the wave of enthusiasm that had swept the nation. Rather than have several small events, they wanted to have a few big ones with memorably big attendance. Palo Alto afforded a somewhat central meeting point as well as a particularly convenient one because of its large repository of used bookstores and university libraries. The Ryder Company had helpfully offered generous discounts for use of their trucks. Stanford and Berkeley had been particularly cooperative and had contributed a large chunk of the evening’s raw material; as torchbearers of the movement, they had had no trouble gathering up enough recruits. Berkeley especially had the White House’s blessing and federal funding had once again started to flow generously to the once cash-strapped institution. Now University Avenue was backed up with Ryder trucks stretching back all the way to Campus Drive, mute messengers of information overflow relived to be offloading their tainted cargo.

As with most events like this, the restaurants were working overtime, offering happy hour deals and competing with each other for the attention of the diverse crowd. The $12.99 double slider special at Sliderbar had been sold out, and Blue Bottle CafĂ© in HanaHaus was going crazy trying to cater to their hyper-caffeinated consumers who especially relished the buzz from the establishment’s famous Death Valley Cold Brew. Groups of students could be seen working in relay teams; as one group helped unload the trucks and consign the contents to the flames, the other went back and brought back coffee and donuts for renewed energy. A family stood outside Palo Alto Creamery, the children squealing with delight as their ice cream melted quicker between their fingers in the glare of the heat. The parents watched with familiar exasperation, especially since there were three more bags to take care of. The extra generators at the creamery were having a hard time keeping up, but the huge size of the crowd seemed to please the crews even though they had been working since 3 AM.

To facilitate the transition, the government had mandated paid vacation for one day so that they could deploy agents who would visit homes and take stock of the inventory. Just like they did for jury duty, they sent out letters to everyone confirming the date and time. I had to postpone once since I had still not finished counting up my collection. I wanted to postpone again, but the second letter made the urgency of the matter a bit more clear. Two boyish-looking agents had stopped by and efficiently noted down everything as they gently took volumes out of my shelves and kept them back. Once they were sure about the total they had handed me a piece of paper confirming the number, along with information on the date of the event in Palo Alto. “We appreciate your help in this, Sir; you have no idea how some people have offered resistance to even such a simple call to community service. It’s especially absurd since it was their own friends and family members who had gone out of their way to come to all those town hall meetings and demand this! In any case, we’ll see you on the 27th. You have a nice day now.” I nodded wearily.

I had been reluctant to commit myself to that first milestone. There was another day late in November when those who couldn’t make it for some reason the first time around could go. I decided to go to the October event all the same; I had had nothing much to do in the evenings ever since all the bookstores had been either closed or reduced to selling meager, uninteresting fare.

They were offering discount parking in the lot on Waverley Street, so I parked there and took a right on University Avenue. As I turned a blast of hot air hit me, as if trying to wash away memories of an unwanted past. At the end of the street, flanked by shadows of the moving crowd, was the conflagration. The crowds around me were moving to and fro between the end of the street and the businesses along the sides, although the overall movement seemed to be toward the amorphous, flaring yellow shape shifter in the distance. I suddenly saw a familiar face at the side. It was Sam from HanaHaus; the establishment had opened an extra counter on the sidewalk to quell the crowds inside. “Hey, how’s it going? Some crowd huh?” waved Sam. I waved back but Sam’s hand quickly dissolved in the flurry of hands grabbing coffee cups and placing orders. I kept on walking and quickly reached the police perimeter. “Hi, do you have anything to donate?”, asked an officer. I told him that I was going to take advantage of the extended deadline. That’s ok, he said; based on the conversations he had had, people had such large collections that many of them were going to be forced to come back anyway. As a family with three young kids approached with their bags, he requested me to stand back so he could help them.

As I stepped back I took in the scene. The fire was gleefully lofting paper and pages up in a whirlwind of nihilistic ecstasy, the frayed, burning edges of pages proclaiming their glowing jaggedness, their silent letter-by-letter obliteration. Nearby, one group of children was dancing in a circle with others, enjoying the momentary dizziness induced by the motion. Their parents were keeping a close watch on them as they went on with their routine. Occasionally a child would quickly run to his or her parents’ side, pick up a volume and toss it laughing and screaming, even as the other children yelled about the interruption. They would then join the circle again and continue the dance, their own movements alternating with the movements of the soot as it went round and round the pyramid of burning paper.

It was then that I saw some of the names; it was odd that I shouldn’t have recognized them before, but it might simply have been because they were so ubiquitous that they had been rendered invisible. There were Lee and Kafka, Baldwin and Joyce, Ovid and Atwood, Plato and Melville, Rushdie and Russell, Twain and Conrad, Rhodes and Faulkner, Pynchon and Sagan, Woolf and Dostoyevsky, McCarthy and Stein. They were there because they were too colonial, too non-colonial, too postcolonial, too offensive, too profane, too sensitive, too traumatic, too objective, too white, too black, too egalitarian, too totalitarian, too maverick, too orthodox, too self-reflective, too existential, too modern, too postmodern, too violent, too bucolic, too crude, too literary, too cis, too trans, too religious, too secular, too nihilistic, too meaningful, too anarchist, too conformist, too feminist, too masculine, too languid, too unsettling, too horrific, too boring, too much ahead of their times, too much relics of the past, too much, simply. They were there because sensibilities had been offended, because words had been weaponized.

Most of them were lined up in bag after bag next to the fire, gagged and bound, silently screaming against the passions of men. The ones that had already made it into the void were gone, ideas becoming null, breath turned into air, but some had stumbled back from the high pile with various parts charred and curled up in half- dead configurations, painfully trying to remain part of this world. Some of the names were partially gone, formless echoes being slowly stuffed back into the grave. The ones which had photos of their authors had these photos metamorphosed into things begging to be obliterated: a woman with only her smile burnt off, looking like a gargoyle without a mouth; a man with his eyes masterfully taken out by well-placed glowing embers; another one where the heat had half-heartedly engraved dimpled plastic bubbles on the face of a female novelist known to have a pleasing countenance, now looking like a smallpox victim with a jaw left hanging.

It was then that I noticed another breed of spectator rapidly moving through the crowd. Photographers hired by both government and private agencies were canvassing the scene like bounty hunters looking for trinkets of a fractured reality which they could take back to their studios and immortalize in its isolated desolation. One of them was the noted photographer Brandon Trammel, from the California Inquirer. I could see him now on the other side of the fire, his body and the shimmering flames appearing to coalesce into one seamless disintegration. At a certain temperature human beings and paper become indistinguishable, guilt-ridden souls shredded apart into their constituent atoms, sons and daughters of the whims of men consumed by fire and fury. Trammel was taking photos of the men and women and children around the fire, etching their cries of glee and solemn duty into permanent oblivion.

Moving around the fire like a possessed man furiously scribbling down the habits of an alien civilization, he came over to my side. I caught sight of a half-burnt title on the ground. It was a familiar volume from another era, an era now looking like the world in a snow globe, eroding now through the obscuring glow of time. “Hey”, I yelled at him, “Here, let me pose for you”. I picked up the book and threw it at the red wall with all my might. I heard a click, but at the last moment the charred remains of its edges had disintegrated in my hands and it fell short by a few feet. I desperately looked around. Another one was within sight. I hastily scampered over, picked it up and looked at Trammel, eager and wild-eyed. “Again!”, I screamed at the top of my voice, and cast it into the fire.

Note: Perspicacious readers may have noticed that I have modeled the ending here on the last part of Raymond Carver's short story "Viewfinder". Very few writers could do quiet desperation as well as Carver.

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