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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

You Are What You Read

I can't remember a time when I wasn't a bookworm. Perhaps, with a writer for a mother and a lawyer/avocationalhistorian-cum-theologian-cum-renaissance man for a father, it was inevitable. I am pretty sure I was reading Steven King in elementary school and Michael Crichton by middle school, and, in high school, under the influence of some friends and a list of the 20th century's best books, developed the ridiculous idea that to be a worthwhile person I probably had to read all of them. That feeling stayed with me through college and just about all the way up until I read Michael Pollan and Derrick Jensen and went mental for the environment.

It's only fitting, then, that I recently became a book, with the help of HUMAN Library. I'll let it speak for itself:

What is the Human Library?

The Human Library is an innovative method designed to promote dialogue, reduce prejudices and encourage understanding.The main characteristics of the project are to be found in its simplicity and positive approach.

In its initial form the Human Library is a mobile library set up as a space for dialogue and interaction. Visitors to a Human Library are given the opportunity to speak informally with “people on loan”; this latter group being extremely varied in age, sex and cultural background.

The Human Library enables groups to break stereotypes by challenging the most common prejudices in a positive and humorous manner. It is a concrete, easily transferable and affordable way of promoting tolerance and understanding.

It is a “keep it simple”, “no-nonsense” contribution to social cohesion in multicultural societies.

(end quote).

My friend Sunny, pictured on the left here, encountered the Human Library at some point during his travels (he also spent some time in Sadhana, though not while I was there) and, last spring, brought it back to Kyungpook National University, just a short walk away from my apartment. He, like so many Koreans in their mid-twenties, is frustrated by the rigidity of Korean life: your first eighteen years are spent prepping for college entrance exams, and then which school you attend essentially determines your station in life. After graduation, you try to get a job with one of the big companies (Samsung, Hyundai, Kia, LG...), which will require you to work sixty-or-more hour weeks at a job that most likely is unsatisfying and almost certainly isn't good for the planet. There seem to be few people voicing alternatives, or even openly talking about the pointlessness of such a system. Sunny decided to try to open up a space for such discussion, and he asked me to help.

The way the Human Library works is this: people who have something they want to share volunteer to be "books," and give themselves a title indicating what they want to talk about. People who want to listen sign up to be "readers." A maximum of two or three readers sits down with one book, and the book starts. And continues for about thirty or forty minutes, free of interruption. At the end of the alloted time, there are a few minutes for questions, then, after a short break, the second round starts. Some books may receive a new group of readers, while others may become readers themselves. The listening and talking go on for a few rounds until the readers have absorbed enough for one night, or until the books have talked themselves hoarse. Then the afterparty!

As awkward as it sounds, the project is actually really nifty . First of all, there's the obvious aspect of people being given the time and space to freely discuss experiences and ideas that matter to them. Such topics are hard to broach at work, at dinner, or at a bar, and we should probably all have more time in our lives set aside for serious reflection on matter of political, social, and moral importance.

More interesting than the content, though, is the way that the format enhances it; all of the unusual limits on the (non)conversation serve to make it much more satisfying, because designating a time, place, topic, speaker, and group eliminates a lot of the normal barriers to deep communication. For all the good that back-and-forth dialectic can bring about, it also limits our ability to communicate, since speaker and listener so frequently interrupt each other, ask questions, and steer the conversation one way or another depending on what they want to get out of it. Further, we're accustomed to trying be impressive, entertaining, or interesting, and thus often tailor what we say, and how we say it, to what we know about the listener. Thus, often, both parties are left having been unable to say what they really wanted (though we're so used to this that we may not notice it).

The format of the Human Library effectively removes all of these obstacles. All of the roles and topics are set in advance; the book has promised to give, and the reader, to accept. At the end of it, both are changed. The book, having finally been guaranteed a listener, has now experienced really being listened to, has had his whole story accepted unconditionally. He has been given a real chance to make himself understood, and, interestingly enough, in the process of doing so, has also come to a better understanding of his own feelings and experiences. Constantly forced to decide on his own what is worth bringing up, what is worth elaborating on, and what needs emphasis, he finds out almost accidentally which submerged meanings are begging to be allowed to rise up on their own.

The reader, symetrically, having promised to accept whatever the book wanted to give him, has had a chance to experience real listening. We are so full of our own ideas, objections, prejudices, interests, and enthusiasms, that we often fail to acknowledge that others exist in their own right, not just to satisfy or entertain us, that they have their own inner worlds as rich and complicated as our own. This failure prevents us from knowing and understanding them, and keeps us sealed up in our own little thought bubbles. The reader, having momentarily been able to step out of his, may see certain aspects of the world or of himself in a new light, or may realize that other may perceive him and his actions in ways he hadn't anticipated.

At the end of it, the giver has received and the receiver has given, and it's almost impossible to say who has given or gained more; what's clear is that giving and taking doesn't always have to be a zero-sum game. Having come to this realization through the same process, a powerful feeling of mutual gratitude binds both parties.
This free exchange of experience, understanding, acceptance, and sympathy generates confidence, strength, solidarity, and hope.

At the risk of deflating all that rhetoric a little (actually, it's all making me very uncomfortable), here's a list of some book topics from the two events I've participated in.

"What I learned from my travels," "College life and human rights," "Tiny things can change your life," and mine, "In Sadhana Forest." (What I actually talked about will have to wait for another post.) Not pictured: "College students and the green consumers' alliance" and "A country boy's experience in the Auroville community."

Ever seen such happy books?

PS I've been meaning to write this entry since I did my first Human Library event in April! I just did my second one last night. I guess that tipped the scales. Check out the difference in ponytail length...


Dave said...

My thoughts:

1. Cool concept, though I can't help but feel the idea is another in the long line of desperate/elaborate covers in man's quest to get laid (Facebook, Team In Training, Undeployed, et al.).
2. You've been shaving! Now I don't know what to believe.
3. It is interesting to think about how often interruptions and questions can completely throw off a potentially good conversation. I can think of many times where I've been discussing something, and end up racing through the "punch line", because various digressions have made the whole undertaking exhausting.
4. How does this system eliminated the desire to be "impressive, entertaining, [and/]or interesting"? Surely you still want to be all of those things to at least some degree. Nearly every author that's ever put pen to paper has tried to make their books at least one--if not all--of those qualities. Why make a human book less entertaining than a book book?
5. "Tiny things can change your life" sounds like a great bathroom read.
6. Nice post.

Dave said...

Shit, I forgot to add "adult co-ed sports leagues" to my example list in point one.

대구에 또 있는 마이크 followers: any other ideas? We're half way to a top-10 list. Let's keep this going!

AZ said...

Yes! I've had this article http://www.yongestreetmedia.ca/features/humanbooks1208.aspx bookmarked in my "inspiration" folder for almost a year now! I'm so excited that you're actually getting to take part in this. Sigh... Maybe I'll have to get one going in Madison? I love the idea.

Dave said...

...grad school, dog ownership, teaching English in a foreign country...

Mike said...

1) Daegu Green Living
2) I wear ties to school, but they're often rebellious.
4) It's an overstatement to say that those pressures are "eliminated," but the fact that the person is a stranger, that you may not ever see them again, and that they have already made their interest in what you have to say explicit, means you don't need to connive or compete. Of course, you want to present your material in a way that is interesting and engaging, but for the most part, given the situation, simply being honest and straightforward is enough.
5) No idea what you're referring to.

AZ: Give it a shot, you've got a lot to share. How about "A wedding on our own terms?"

Dave: Going vegan? Walking? Being born?

SandfordWrites said...

What a great idea!

Kristin said...

This is great! Reminds me a bit of what I'm learning in my narrative mediation class (http://www.mediate.com/articles/hansenT.cfm). I'm interested to hear more about your story topic too.