16 December 2010

The Human Library.... and Afghanistan

Visit the library, rent a human... what a concept! It’s not often I come across an idea that actually appears to be new... yet, as usual, this idea is not new at all. The first recorded instance of a so-called Human Library took place about ten years ago in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The idea is we all have stories to share. What better place to meet and spin tales than your local library or bookstore?

In Copenhagen, the idea was to “break down prejudice by bringing people of different backgrounds together for (person-to-person) conversation.” Other venues in other places have copied this concept and expanded it.

Most recently I read about a Human Library in the online news aggregator Slate, which reported that “libraries in Toronto are trying to shake things up a bit. They've stocked their shelves with something new: people.”

In Toronto, librarian Anne Marie Aikens said her event this past November drew more than 200 people who “rented” for a half-hour each a police officer, a comedian, a sex-worker-turned-club-owner, a model and survivor of cancer, homelessness and poverty, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, and a 19 year-old man with cerebral palsy.

Aikens told a local reporter, “With the Human Library it’s a one-on-one experience and that kind of storytelling... does harken back to centuries and centuries ago when a story was the only way to learn. It's an old technology.”

She added, “A good portion of users heard about it from social media. In the least personal, most mediated way, they found a way to have a very personal experience.”

Funny she should say that, because as soon as I heard about the Human Library I went over to Facebook and searched for Human Libraries. I found them in Norfolk, England; Wroclaw, Poland; Terni, Italy; Tucson, Arizona; and Lismore, Australia.

Let’s try this in Mendocino! Put a name tag and bar code on my chest, and remember to return me to the loan desk when you’re finished conversing.

* * * * *

On another subject altogether: This is the week our government talks publicly about plans for the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Which brings to mind a book I just finished, “The Afghan Campaign” by historian and novelist Steven Pressfield.

It turns out that the Macedonian general Alexander, “The Great” to history, spent three years trying to pacify the same stony soil we currently are fighting over. He didn’t succeed, either, and in the end left “fully a fifth of his army... to keep the country from reverting to insurgency,” according to an historical note at the beginning of the novel.

Alexander extricated himself by making an alliance with a powerful warlord and taking as wife the warlord’s daughter. Alexander’s forts stretched over the land, but despite victories, Alexander never permanently subdued the region. He was forced to fight a tribal, guerrilla war against insurgents who would not join in traditional battles. The brutal and mysterious terrain, as always, favored local inhabitants.

“The Afghan Campaign” tells this story through the adventures of several of Alexander’s soldiers, and in the process we learn about the people of what is now Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. The tale is chillingly similar to what the US is trying to do now, and what Britain, the Soviet Union, and others failed to do.

If you’d like a ground level view of how tribal life and warfare really works, look no farther than “The Afghan Campaign.” It’s set more than 2,300 years ago, but it’s fresh as a wound, and no more comfortable.


The Toronto news story...

For more details about the Human Library http://humanlibrary.org/

The Slate magazine...

“The Afghan Campaign” by Steven Pressfield. Broadway Books paperback $14.95. ISBN  0767922387.

Meet the author and his blogs...

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