Racist little free libraries
This piece in the New York Times is really something, and I mean that in the worst possible sense.
Erin Aubry Kaplan lives in Inglewood, “a mostly Black and Latino city in southwestern Los Angeles County,” and she decides to build a Little Free Library, as they are called, in her front yard so neighbors walking by can borrow a book. She builds one because she loves books, but because in our puritanical times nothing can be as simple as that, she writes that she also put one up “to signal to my longtime neighbors that we had our own ideas about improvement, and could carry them out in our own way. There are organizations that help people build these little libraries, but I did mine independently. I envisioned it as a place for my neighbors to stay connected during the pandemic.”
Fine. But then things get a little crazy. A white couple stops and looks at her library and Aubry Kaplan freaks out: “Instantly, I was flooded with emotions — astonishment, and then resentment, and then astonishment at my resentment. It all converged into a silent scream in my head of, Get off my lawn!”
She doesn’t yell “Get off my lawn,” thankfully, and she doesn’t take down the library because a white couple stopped and looked at it without even borrowing a book. But, while embarrassed by her initial reaction, she comes to see it as natural: “What I resented was not this specific couple,” she writes, “It was their whiteness.” Technically, she put the little library out for “everyone,” but it was really for everyone but white people, and when the white couple stopped and looked at the books, they were transgressing on black space, once again pushing black people to the margins, appropriating black expression, and gentrifying the black neighborhood. Aren’t whites the worst? Here’s Aubry Kaplan:
I was seeing up close how fragile that space can be, how its meaning can be changed in my mind, even by people who have no conscious intention to change it. That library was on my lawn, but for that moment it became theirs. I built it and drove it into the ground because I love books and always have. But I suddenly felt that I could not own even this, something that was clearly and intimately mine.
As the couple wandered on, no books in hand, I thought about how fragile my feeling of being settled is. It didn’t matter that I own my house, as many of my neighbors do. Generations of racism, Jim Crow, disinvestment and redlining have meant that we don’t really control our own spaces. In that moment, I had been overwhelmed by a kind of fear, one that’s connected to the historical reality of Black people being run off the land they lived on, expelled by force, high prices or some whim of white people.
You see, the white couple, by merely stopping, enacted a kind of historical racism. Aubry Kaplan is the victim here. Her anger at the white couple — sorry, her anger at the whiteness of the couple — is not the same as white anger at blacks occupying white spaces because she doesn’t have the power to do anything about it:
Ultimately, the moment with the couple I saw through my window raised for me a serious moral question about how I should act. Screaming at them to get off my lawn would be adopting the values of the oppressor, as my racial-justice activist father used to say. Yet my resentment was not analogous to the white resentment of generations past (and of now, I’d argue). White resentment has always been legitimized, and reinforced, by legal and cultural dominance.
A feeling is only wrong if you have the power to “legitimize” it? That doesn’t sound right. And what is this article but an attempt to legitimize segregation and a feeling of racial disgust in one of the country’s most read papers?
In other news
Speaking of neighborhoods, Ted Gioia writes about the “bizarre juxtapositions” of postwar neighborhoods in California: “Austrian avant-garde composer Arnold Schoenberg’s home in Los Angeles is a short walk away from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air house . . . Igor Stravinsky, in contrast, was living on North Wetherly Drive in West Hollywood, not far away from Whisky a Go Go—he could have strolled down there to watch Alice Cooper record a live album at the club in 1969”:
I was a young boy in Los Angeles back then, and my notion of these neighborhoods was so different from my later impressions of Mann, Schoenberg, Brecht, Stravinsky, and others. How could they possibly reside in such settings? Could Mann really write Doctor Faustus a few minutes away from Muscle Beach? Did Schoenberg actually take a break from his austere composing to play tennis with George Gershwin in Hollywood? It’s all true. But they didn’t make these unexpected moves to amuse us. Necessity and banishment created these unusual connections.
Gioia goes on to write about the interesting revelations in Cynthia Haven’s new biography of Czesław Miłosz’s time in California.
Bill Adair writes about what Stephen Glass — journalism’s “the most notorious fraud” — did after he was fired by The New Republic. He met and eventually married Julie Halden, and then he took care of her while she slowly died from early-onset Alzheimer’s.
The Greek Revolution and the beginning of modern Europe: “The Greek Revolution, as the War of Independence is known in Greece, marked the birth of the first new nation-state to emerge from the multinational empires that dominated Europe in the 19th century and the only Greek nation-state that has ever existed. There might have been Greek city-states in antiquity and Greek empires and kingdoms during the Middle Ages, but the Greek nation-state is a thoroughly modern creation.”
Were Europeans mistaken for gods by indigenous people when they first arrived in North America and elsewhere? Probably not, Anna Della Subin argues in her book, Accidental Gods. Casey Cep reviews:
“They threw themselves into the sea swimming and came to us,” Christopher Columbus wrote of the Taíno men and women he encountered on the island of Guanahani, “and we understood that they asked us if we had come from heaven.” He recorded the same thing in his journal basically everywhere he landed, certain that any hand gesture conveyed worship, that every gift was intended as a religious offering, and that speech in languages he could not understand proclaimed his godliness.
A short history of pasta:
A fundamental principle of the medical culture inaugurated by Hippocrates of Kos in the V-IV centuries BCE—and which was later dubbed “Galenic” because it was refined in the II century by Galen of Pergamon—was that of looking for the point of equilibrium in which opposites compensate for or correct each other. Contraria contrariis curantur, “opposites cure opposites” was the basic rule. The first field of application for this rule was cooking, both in the choice of combinations (putting together ingredients with opposing qualities) and in cooking practices: roast moist ingredients to dry them; boil dry products to moisten them. This was the scientific basis—confirmed by experience—that fostered the habit of cooking pasta in water, or in broth, or milk, to rehydrate a dehydrated product.
Everyone is crying tears of joy: “Instead of embracing the subtle joys of the slightly smiling face, the world has continued its love affair with ‘face with tears of joy,’ a crass, blunt instrument of an emoji that leaves no room for subtlety or ambiguity. It’s reportedly been on top since at least 2017, and in 2021, it accounted for over 5 percent of emoji sent online. Ridiculous.”
Stephen Sondheim didn’t just change musicals. He changed crosswords: “Sondheim is particularly remembered among connoisseurs of word puzzles for his role in introducing Americans to British-style cryptic crosswords, in which clues must be unpacked by teasing apart intricate wordplay embedded within. The crosswords that he created for New York Magazine in 1968 and 1969 were instrumental in popularizing the cryptic genre on this side of the Atlantic.”
The case of Thomas Gavin, one of America’s “most prolific artifact thieves,” goes to court: “It wasn’t just any old gun, but one of the few surviving rifles made by master gunsmith John Christian Oerter. The copy Kinzle thought he bought for $4,000 was actually valued at $175,000.”
In this week’s column, I write about the publisher David R. Godine, who produces some of the best, most beautifully designed trade books in America.
And in the Wall Street Journal, Emily Bobrow writes about the long, distinguished career of Robert Gottlieb:
Over the years, Mr. Gottlieb says he has had plenty of doubts about himself, “as a man, as a person, as a human,” but he has never doubted his professional taste. A natural editor, he tweaks his sentences as he speaks them. He explains that he constantly revises his work as he writes but doesn’t “want to use a fancy word like refine or improve” to describe this process, instead settling on “adjust.” Mr. Gottlieb has no idea where his editorial certainty came from, but he is grateful it still propels him forward. “I’m very, very fortunate,” he says. “And I know it.” He is similarly upbeat about the state of the book industry, despite the consolidation of publishers and booksellers. “Ever since I’ve been in publishing I’ve been hearing about the death of publishing,” he says. “My beloved Doris Lessing had a phrase: That’s a load of old socks.” There will always be a market for books, he explains, so there will always be a need to publish them, “one way or another.”