FINDLEY: Celebrating books and the gifts they give us

Special to The TelegraphJune 15, 2014 

For the past several weeks, Macon has been celebrating, albeit quietly, the enduring value of books. Many of us Maconites who live, work or drive through the College Hill Corridor have likely noticed the strange, bright blue, whimsical, English looking, life-size police call box recently installed in James Park at the corner of College Street and Georgia Avenue and wondered, perhaps, how the Macon-Bibb Police Department suddenly got so stylish.

If you take a moment, however, park your car, venture up to the quirky call box and open one of its secret doors. You’ll notice that instead of a telephone, it’s full of free books.

The call box, inspired by the iconic British television series “Doctor Who” and built by local Maconite Christopher Marney, is the brainchild of Mercer professor Jennifer Look. The project is funded by a Knight Neighborhood Challenge Grant.

There are currently seven “Little Free Libraries” scattered across the Corridor and downtown. The opening of the free library in James Park corresponded with the 14th Annual National Book Festival at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., but its dedication also corresponds to a lesser known, but more infamous, tragedy in the history of the written word: the Nazi book burnings of 1933.

On May 10, 1933, in the city of Berlin in the middle of a public square called the Opernplatz, in the shadow of a lovely cathedral, more than 25,000 books, twice the size of many Georgia libraries, were piled into an enormous bonfire and mercilessly burned to ashes and dust -- in some cases by innocent children who were marched to the edge of the hot fires and ordered to throw their books in.

Some of the world’s greatest authors were burned that night: German-speaking writers such as Thomas Mann, Sigmund Freud and Franz Kafka, English writers such as D.H. Lawrence and Joseph Conrad, and even American writers Ernest Hemingway and Jack London, writers whose books have been cherished and revered in this country for generations.

Why march children and teenagers, their arms piled high with classic texts, and encourage them to burn ideas? Joseph Goebbels stood watch, encouraging the children and students to sing patriotic songs as they threw away their books, ordering them “to entrust to the flames the intellectual garbage of the past.”

The German government tried to decide what was German and un-German, what was healthy and “degenerate.” The scenes that night in Berlin must have seemed cultish and surreal, as strange as those Southerners must seem to us now, wearing white robes and burning crosses in the dead of night.

The simple truth is that the Nazis attempted to box the minds of their citizens in and attempted to limit their God-given ability to think on their own, to dream about worlds far different and sometimes much better, than their own hellish reality.

Well-crafted books cause us to transcend the real and, from time to time, if the books are really good, they prompt us to believe that the real world in which we dwell can be better, more beautiful, different and yes, more free. The Nazis created a straw man and set it on fire: It was not the physical book they were afraid of. It was the liberation of the mind they sought to destroy.

After seeing newsreels in their local movie theaters of the Nazi book burnings, Americans were outraged, marching across American cities by the tens of thousands. They were furious at the burning of books. But why? What is it about burning books that Americans find so disturbing? We are people of the book. For us, the book symbolizes not only the freedom of the mind, but the spirit as well.

The next time you are driving along College Street and see the blue English call box, or the next time you are walking in Tattnall Square Park or the Macon Dog Park and see a little free library, pause and reflect on what is special about our relationship with books.

As citizens of this culturally critical city of Macon and as Americans, why do we continue to be thrilled and mysteriously moved by watching children and teenagers as they approach these little free libraries, open the door, and in the midst of traffic and passing cars, they anxiously turn the pages of a new book, wondering what doors it will open, their minds open and ready to absorb something miraculous?

As adults, we would do well to recapture this innocent spirit of renewal and hopefulness that our children feel when they begin a new story.

Dr. Carl E. Findley III is the senior lecturer in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Mercer University.

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