On my stroll back from Checkpoint Charlie, I noticed two racks of books, comfy-looking chairs and some hammocks in the Humboldt University Platz. It threatened rain. The day was cold. But I stopped anyway.
I asked the two young women manning (womanning?) the booth if this was a portable bookstore.
“Not a bookstore,” they answered. “A library.”
“A library?” I asked in disbelief.
They moved the two stacks of German books from city to city and created a space to read. Many people didn’t read at home, they said. Some had no libraries close by. Locals and tourists who needed a quiet moment away from their hectic day really loved it.
The library is funded by city administrations, their mayors, the manufacturers of chairs and hammocks and the publishers who had donated their products. At night, they stacked up the chairs, closed up the cases and let the security guard keep it safe.
So far, they’d been to Austria, Switzerland, Italy and other cities in Germany.
Isabel went on to explain that Bebelplatz, the square we were in, was the very spot where Nazi students burned Jewish books in 1933.
Before I left, Andrea (short, dark hair) offered to get their one English book for me. I was freezing and wanted the warmth of a coffee shop or my hotel room. I promised to return.
Two days later
I’d thought a lot about this sole English book. I was sorry I hadn’t asked Andrea the title. What number or content of pages would be sufficiently representational of the English language?
When I got there, they told me they’d sold it, the day before. The man had so desperately wanted it, they’d decided to let him have it. The name of this book? How To Be German.
Andrea took me over to the bookcases and showed me some lovely art books. She introduced me to Frank Kunert , an artist who creates satirical miniatures. Then he sells the pictures or postcards of them.
At first glance, each photograph appears ordinary. When you look closer, there are items out of sync: a toilet and towel on the roof of a house, the railroad tracks where the balcony is, as on the front cover.
Enticed by Andrea’s idea of spending some time with this book, and the thought of swaying in a hammock, I climbed in, covered up with an available blanket and read. The introduction was in English and German, the rest pictures.
To give myself an excuse to keep swaying, I looked it over three times. Then I examined each picture more carefully and considered what he’d created. Each whole had to be reassessed because of the odd additions, in the same way I re-examined Bebelplatz from the comfort of my hammock.
Kunert said no matter how well he prepared the project in his head, it never turned out the way he’d planned. He thought the unexpected portions made the result more authentic.
While I read my book, a guide gave a tour within my hearing. He spoke of how the world had ignored the sign of the book burning in the square. Had the powers that be been more intent on listening, he said, and taken the act more seriously, they might have saved the lives of sixteen million people.
A sobering thought.
Isabel’s website: www.StadtLesen.com. She’d love to get books in other languages and travel to other countries. If any of you feel your towns/cities might benefit from this Reading Space, please feel free to contact her for the details.
Copyright 2014. Monique Martel. All rights reserved.