Commenters on Yan Lianke’s poetic essay from China in Thursday’s New York Times — about the task of writers — spoke for many and maybe most of his readers in expressing fears for his safety. Why, in this age of magically flexible and ubiquitous post-Gutenberg communication tools — of which China is the leading manufacturer — do we hear so seldom from voices like his in China and Russia, supporting writers like him, and giving us essential information?
A small child who has only paddled in a bathtub can have no idea of what swimming in an ocean is like. Still, the experience of being immersed in water does supply an atom or two of useful comprehension. In this way, anyone in the liberal West whose thoughts typed into comment boxes on media sites have been stifled — persistently — by ‘community moderators,’ solely because they do not suit the politics and editorial policies of a powerful newspaper, has had a taste of actual censorship, and of refusing to let the fear of humiliation, punishment and banishment (deleting a commenter’s account) shut down the flow of words.
No one expects to have to be a heroic Yan Lianke in any proud Western democracy. Yet even in these, the suppression of inconvenient views in the most scrupulously polite debate gets hardly any attention. This week, The Guardian has again been promoting the paid, tiered ‘membership’ scheme it is offering readers. No one yet knows exactly what this club is going to do for free expression, and for reining in this paper’s notoriously trigger-happy moderators (of whom we at post-Gutenberg must admit that we have no recent first-hand experience, having decided to stop going there and say what we want to about The Guardian on this site, instead.) In a post here a few weeks ago — ‘Alan Rusbridger must please not let ‘Guardian membership’ mean bread-and-circuses, and prove that he is sincere about ‘mutualised’ journalism’ — we expressed our hope that there is substance behind the alluring advertisement.
No ‘membership’ scheme will be worth the attention of thinking people unless ‘members’ are allowed to help The Guardian’s policy-makers ensure that its ‘Comment is Free’ section lives up to its name. Yan Lianke’s New York Times contribution shows just how much thinkers like him count on the West for inspiration and support. Never mind China’s grand, ancient philosophical tradition. Confucianism was never about individual freedom.
With marvellous economy and a soulfulness rarely found in Western editorialising, he has reminded us of what we forget at our peril – the importance of unencumbered truth-telling. Please pass on the link to his piece after you have read the extracts below, and a sample of readers’ comments on them – including one from someone not fluent in English, who is owed our thanks for pointing out why some of his criticisms of China could be mistaken. We wish it was within our power to invite Yan Lianke to respond in this space.
BEIJING — China’s efforts to promote socialism in the late 1950s and early 1960s resulted in what is euphemistically known as the three years of natural disasters, during which more than 30 million people starved to death. One evening when I was a young boy, not long after the catastrophe, I followed my mother as she went to dump garbage outside the wall that surrounded our village, a poor and isolated town in central China.
Holding my hand, my mother pointed to the white clay and yellow earth of the wall, and said, “Son, you must always remember, when people are starving to death they may eat this white clay and elm tree bark, but if they try to eat that yellow earth or the bark of any other kind of tree they will die even faster.”
Mother went back inside our house to cook and left behind a long shadow. I stood in front of the edible clay gazing out at the sunset, the village and the fields, and an enormous sheet of darkness gradually approached.
China may boast of having several thousand years of civilization, but when an old man collapses in the street, everyone refrains from helping him out for fear of being implicated, even as the old man bleeds warm, red blood. What kind of society do we live in when a pregnant woman dies on the delivery table and all of the medical technicians flee in order to avoid responsibility, leaving behind a tiny soul uttering a feeble cry?
It is a writer’s job to find life within this darkness.
I am reminded of Job, in the Old Testament, who after experiencing countless misfortunes said to his wife as she was urging him to curse God, “Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?” This simple response demonstrates that Job understood that his suffering was merely God’s way of testing him, and was evidence that darkness and light must exist together.
I don’t pretend that I have been uniquely selected by God, as Job was, to endure suffering, but I do know that I am somehow fated to perceive darkness. From these shadows I lift my pen to write. I search for love, goodness and a perpetually beating heart.
At a symposium last week, President Xi Jinping met with a group of artists, including the Nobel Laureate Mo Yan, and talked about the value of art in China. According to the official China Youth Online, he said, “For art workers to be successful, they must breathe together with the people, share their fate and feel their feelings, rejoice at their joy, grieve at their grief, and serve the people like a willing ox.”
But only the pursuit of true art, unencumbered by anyone, can help us find the delicate light, beauty, warmth and love that are hidden in the darkness.
Some comments by his readers (not in their original order):
… Despite the unfashionable earnestness in this essay, I applaud its plea for cosmopolitan artistic freedom in the tradition of Romain Rolland. I’m sure that Yan Lianke will pay a real price for it.
I was hoping to read that his name was a pseudonym, but I didn’t. It is a beautiful and incredibly brave piece of writing. I just hope it doesn’t cost him his freedom, or worse.
Absolutely correct…. Confuciusm can’t mesh with the mordern global system… Neither can traditional Judaism/Christianity/Islam. Te only thing that meshes is money. It’s the new world order…
“…now that money and power have replaced socialism and capitalism…
Though Yan Lianke seems like writer of some brilliance, I think the above statement is fundamentally flawed. Capitalism is nothing if it is not about money and power.
Stranger [ someone apparently posting from California ]
The author only pointed out one side of the problem.
Why the old man fell on the street and nobody dared to help him? Because there was a famous lawsuit in Nanjing in which an old lady framed a young guy who actually helped her get up and the judge condemned him to pay about 12,000USD to that old lady.
And why the medical technicians flee when the pregnant woman died? She died from amniotic embolism which is difficult to diagnose and extremely dangerous. A hysterectomy surgery might have saved her life but unfortunately her husband refused this option because he was worrying about if his wife was going to be able to have the second baby. After the pregnant woman died, the family sent dozens of relatives trashed the hospital, that was why the doctors and nurses had to flee. IN china, every year several doctors died of medical disputes, most of them are stabbed by angry/crazy patients or their family members.
well, the other side of story only makes China even a worse country. That’s the reality of China. Democracy is not the medicine for its illness right now, seriously. With such a low level civil consciousness, democracy will just be abused. china has a long way to go. let’s take it slowly.
A Sincere but Puzzled Han Chinese Girl [ Guangzhou, China ]
Stranger, you speak out what i’d like to clarify here. Many thanks
The author may be fated to perceive darkness, but if so, he would perceive darkness wherever men walk in numbers, and not merely in China. The challenges he writes of aren’t uniquely Chinese challenges but human ones and timeless ones. We study these challenges in every society, in part through art, in part through philosophy, and the purpose of such study is to find the “delicate light, beauty, warmth and love that are hidden in the darkness”. More, it’s to find purpose in the darkness.
Others labor elsewhere, but his challenge is to find these qualities in China.
Last week’s entry on David Lankes’s ideas for redesigning libraries to be centres of brimming invention and maximally engaged enlightenment for communities led to two discoveries. The first was a new post on his personal blog about his recovery from a terrifying illness — a turnaround owed to a harrowing but successful stem cell transplant — which, we hope, will be swift, strong and complete. In this report, he tells – in passing – of having been the target of exceptionally nasty attacks by some fellow-librarians.
All genuine reformers have stories like this – and the hostility is often in direct proportion to the importance of the changes being seeded and sown. Anyone who doubts this need only read Tuesday’s report in The New York Times about the resentment at the World Bank of a reorganisation instigated by its president, Dr. Jing Yong Kim, who has also – as an expert in fighting epidemics — made it his personal mission to put the Bank’s resources at the disposal of Ebola-stricken African countries at a speed insiders thought impossible, before the fact.
Next, we learnt about a contest organised by the Knight Foundation in which competitors are invited to submit schemes for turning libraries into more or less the places Lankes envisages – although it does not actually say so in its brief for contestants. This organisation’s charter entails financing ‘transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts.’
The proposal of Phil Shapiro, the other future focused librarian mentioned here last week, captured our attention because it describes – down to its precise technological components – a way for ordinary citizens to create biographical and historical multi-media records by interviewing each other. Any fan of Studs Terkel’s brilliant and moving Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974) hardly needs an explanation for why that is such a good idea in itself. The contestants clarify their ideas in a crisp interrogation.
In one sentence, describe your idea as simply as possible.
Video booths at public libraries that allow community members to interview other community members over the web with the video and audio captured locally in high quality — and merged after the fact using free, open source software or a web video editing service such as Wevideo.com
Briefly describe the need that you’re trying to address.
Libraries are about the sharing of ideas. Some of the best ideas are in the minds of people who are not famous and who also do not have the video or computer skills to create their own YouTube videos. By giving community members a chance to interview each other, many interesting new ideas will be uncovered that will spark new conversations and new thinking about communities.
Reading that Q and A revived a memory of how social inequality can unbalance the historical record – and of an unsuccessful attempt, a few years ago, to lobby for a remedy at famously left-wing Berkeley. It inspired the following contribution to the feedback that Knight wants members of the public to leave on the competing plans — which fits this blog because it could help some suffering traditional publishers, writers, artists and media workers to understand why it isn’t just that the post-Gutenberg revolution cannot be stopped. Painful as it is for us, it should and must continue, with our encouragement and support.
… Years ago, in researching a book about the culture and characters in the most cosmopolitan segment of American farm country – the Napa Valley — I drew on a superb collection of transcripts from the Bancroft Library’s Regional Oral History Project at Berkeley. Comparing what the same subjects told me with what they were willing to tell the Bancroft interviewers was fascinating.
A decade or so after that, I rang the BROHP director with a proposal to interview someone in California ranch country, a woman of about my mother’s age who was the librarian in a small town to which she and her husband had migrated when he got a job as a ranch hand nearby. She had a sharp and original mind, a biting wit, and a fabulous hoard of stories about her past — for instance, surviving the Depression with her family, as a girl, helping sheep to give birth, and working at two jobs to help keep the family afloat.
I told the Bancroft director: most of the records of the local historical society focus on the top strata of the ranching communities in the region. What if an interview with this particular subject was the first in a series about families at the other end of the economic scale?
He said that that wouldn’t be possible. His organisation relied on donations from the outside to supply the money for the video recording equipment, video editing, travel, and so on. The reason why the Napa Valley was so well represented in the Bancroft collection was that the ‘wine industry’ had been outstandingly generous with funding. But wouldn’t that unbalance the history of rural California, I asked. His answer amounted to a shrug. He agreed with me, but didn’t know how to solve the problem.
I don’t know that the Bancroft’s oral archive still has this flaw. I hope that the bias has been corrected …
This entry tells a true story of our time about a public library that recently turned down a modest proposal for listing on its web site books published independently by its patrons and members. Note that there was no request to include these – necessarily – in the library’s catalogue. The frame for our tale is an open letter about an exciting vision for libraries of the future by an inventive leading librarian.
Dear David Lankes,
Can public libraries supercharge the flowering of indie publishing and go back to being vibrant centres of creativity?
I have been reading your slender Expect More – a book I will call thrilling. As you know, that is not a word that I or anyone else thinks of, any more, in connection with libraries. Least of all, those of us who saw them as unrivalled homes of enchantment, growing up; entertainers for which no television set, nor the most luxurious cinema with the biggest screen was any match. Part of what you have set out so well is that if the visions of a true 21st-century librarian can be realised — in, around and beyond the stacks — libraries could return to their glory days, in ancient times, going all the way back to the legendary 3rd-century BC Library of Alexandria.
I note that you are a professor of library science in Syracuse, in New York state, and a leader in information studies exploring ‘how participatory concepts can reshape libraries and credibility’. You say:
Too many librarians see their collections, not the community, as their jobs. Too many librarians are seeking to survive instead of innovate, … [… ] Great libraries … require open communication about your needs, your challenges, and your dreams. […] Libraries ‘for the people’ is an old way of looking at libraries. The new view is the library ‘of the people.’
When a library director has to be replaced, does the typical library board – or electorate, when the vetting is democratic – know what to look for, to choose the right leader for our times? That would be someone like you or Phil Shapiro, whom I’ve seen described as an educator at a public library near Washington D.C., who ‘teaches an occasional graduate educational technology class at American University’. His @philshapiro notices on the Twitter bulletin-board are quirky, sometimes impish, and essential reading, and led me to you and your book. In a 2008 entry on his ‘Community Voices’ blog on PC World’s site — ‘Should Public Libraries be Welcoming Homes for Ingenuity?’ — a biographical note explained:
In high school he built a hot water solar collector from an abandoned shopping cart and hauled it up onto the roof of his house with a rope. His parents thought that was a good idea. The neighbors were not entirely thrilled with the shopping cart. On the roof. Of the house.
That suggests that the questions people selecting library chiefs should be asking in job interviews or library-related elections are, ‘How young were you when — if — you appalled people by doing things that later confirmed you as one of the pioneers in your circle, and can you give us some examples?’
In my life divided between several perches, in recent years, experiences at public libraries amply bear out your characterisation of too many people working in them as ‘stuck in a sort of professional conservatism that favours what they do over why they do it.’
Not long ago, I asked one head librarian whether our library might support the indie e-book revolution by encouraging patrons to list on the library web site the titles of any independently published books for which they were responsible. I said that I envisaged a bare-bones listing of each book’s title and subject – with, perhaps, a link to the author’s personal web site. This stark recording, I thought, would discourage competitive promotional hype and one-upmanship. The idea for the list had occurred to me when I realised that a number of potential readers of my first e-publishing experiment — a short book (or long essay), Jung on men and women: a Swiss travelogue — happen to live in this particular library’s catchment zone. It is not unusual to meet local residents who are widely travelled, devour travel literature, and are interested in psychology, Switzerland, the fight for women’s rights, and the theories of Freudian psychology’s chief 20th-century rival, Carl Jung.
It seemed to me that libraries might be able to link local readers to writers in ways that the algorithms of Google and Amazon cannot. I would love to glean, from a constantly updated record of books they were publishing, impressions of the obsessions, preoccupations, passions and undisguised money-making schemes of people who live nearby. Living in the same place can mean much more than a shared or neighbouring postal code. Among those of us situated where we are from choice, not just necessity, it seemed as if there could be indefinable but powerful resonances predisposing us to being interested in each other’s literary and graphic creations. Whether I was right or wrong in this assumption, it seemed worth a test.
The head librarian — someone said to be charming whom I have never met in person — replied both directly and through a mutual friend. The idea, I gathered, was a non-starter. The staff already had too much to do without making and updating my proposed list. Though the library is neither a valiant inner-city nor struggling rural branch but located in a large, rich suburb, there were no funds for hiring new workers. What about letting volunteers – patrons – do the job? No, that was out of the question. Why? Because the library chief had tried working with local volunteers and quickly been worn out by the complications of being assisted by those most in need of occupation, bossy ladies-who-lunch types, many of them strangers to workplace discipline. In addition, an overbearing patron who had just published a book for teenagers had been hounding library staff members for help with publicity.
I was sympathetic to these reasons for the proposal’s nervous reception. Well then, I suggested, how about making a specific request for help from seasoned professionals in the ranks of the town’s retirees? What about letting retired administrators or book-keepers, doctors, teachers, company managers, accountants, lawyers and so on, get involved? But I made this counter-suggestion hesitantly, in fading tones, accurately anticipating defeat – because I had by then detected a faint but unmistakable whiff of hostility in a reference in one email from the librarian’s intimate friend to ‘this promotional idea’. I had been careful to explain that the list of e-books published by locals that I envisaged was plain enough to be the antithesis of anything sales-y. To no avail, apparently.
Prejudice can get in the way of reading or hearing what someone has actually said. What would the prejudice be, in this case? At a guess – your characterisation of the typically change-resistant librarian’s view of the purpose of a library – ‘providing access to knowledge,’ where that is perceived as a ‘passive … accumulation of facts,’ and not, as you say it should be, ‘intimately tied to the passions of the individual … dynamic, ever changing and alive.’ Too many libraries, you add, ‘support consuming knowledge instead of creating it.’
Phil Shapiro, arguing along closely parallel lines in a post titled ‘Towards a National Transition Plan for Libraries,’ asks whether libraries should ever close their doors:
In an information-based economy where knowledge workers drive almost all innovation, shouldn’t the public knowledge place be open seven days a week? If 7-Eleven and FedEx Office and McDonald’s can stay open 24 hours a day, is it not possible for libraries to do so, too?
As it happens, a few days before I read that, I’d made the nearly identical point to the circulation staff of a library. I said that they were surely sealing their institution’s doom with rigid, daft rules and systems that make it look more out of touch with reality, every day, to patrons accustomed — for example — to being able to buy discounted books online at any time of day or night, and avail themselves of exceptionally elastic and forgiving returns policies to unload themselves of purchasing mistakes. Don’t libraries realise, I railed, that their worst policies are so despised by patrons that some of us have been whittling down our reasons for borrowing anything from them at all – and actively developing other routes to acquiring everything that they alone could once supply?
I’d been complaining bitterly about being obstructed from paying a late fee because it fell below the threshold for permitting a credit card transaction at the circulation desk – though, by some impenetrable logic, if I went home and logged into my library account from there, I would meet no obstacle to settling my bill with my plastic rectangle. When I actually attempted to do this a few hours later, there was a block on the account because … no, no, I’ll stop there: the reason is too petty, tediously complicated and batty to recount.
As for the good sense in Phil’s advice about adjusting to the information economy — well, a library worker in another branch for whom I have nothing but high praise once explained that the reason why the software download speed on his library’s network can slow to approximately zero megabits per second — even forty-five minutes before closing time — is that the staff do not want patrons getting in the way of closing time routines. They simply shut down internet access to encourage these patrons to leave. I asked how that was possible when the library’s wifi network is supposed to be on all day and night. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘So when you’ve all left, they turn it on again.’ This reminded me of a minder of the public internet-access section of a library, a woman I had never seen before, hovering nearby, tidying desks and watching me type my library card number into the login box at least nine times in a row, trying to get online — with no success. Only when asked for help did she explain that she had already tucked the wifi system into bed – fifteen minutes before the end of her work day.
So, David, imagine trying to make the mental transition from that — a set of far from uncommon reasons for contemporary libraries being a depressing subject of conversation — to your description of ancient Egypt’s fabled book-haven in Alexandria. A place that you say was ‘not a huge document warehouse’, but ‘much more akin to universities of today’, where ‘[s]cholars from the known world were brought together and encouraged to talk and create.’
The contrast is agonising and will get worse, unless you, Phil and other advocates for reform can find a way — fast — to add people like yourselves to the staff of public libraries in senior positions. My happiest discovery in your book is that my modest proposal for patrons letting each other know about their indie publishing projects is directly in line with the transformed library-land you perceive as essential:
In essence, too many libraries have defined access as providing access to their stuff. You must expect more from your library. You need to expect it to provide a platform where you can access the ideas of others, as well as a platform for you to provide others access to your own ideas.
I note, by the way, that you published Expect More yourself. I didn’t buy the e-book. I bought the attractive print-on-demand paperback, childishly delighted – as always – by the idea of a book printed specially for me.
Incidentally, I would love to know how you would have treated my suggestion for a continuously updated list of indie books published by members of a public library. If you ever see this post and feel moved to reply, I hope you will leave a comment here – or on some site of your own.