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Burning Down the House

One of the more curious aspects of American culture is the way oppressed groups co-opt the words once used to denigrate them, turning them into accepted language within their own culture. Desensitization is a powerful coping tool, though what never … Read More

By / May 29, 2007

One of the more curious aspects of American culture is the way oppressed groups co-opt the words once used to denigrate them, turning them into accepted language within their own culture. Desensitization is a powerful coping tool, though what never ceases to amaze is how those same groups recoil in rage when the pejoratives they’ve come to accept as common parlance are hurled back at them as invective or simple-minded ignorance. A few months ago, my wife’s grandfather – a born-again Christian – asked me if I was able to “Jew down” a car salesman in order to get the particularly good deal I’d received.

I was both saddened and offended, though not all that surprised, since I think I’ve probably said the same term in a self-mocking fashion numerous times over the years, which I thought provided me some ownership over the pain; some desensitization. Words carry weight, even if they don’t break bones, and for that I suppose I should be grateful, since I’m capable of writing words but am not much of a street fighter. It’s when words and actions marry that it’s hard to make a distinction between intent and result. 

Which leads me to the curious case of Tom Wayne and William Leathem, owners of Prospero’s Books in Kansas City, who hosted a book burning – or, in their words an “act of art” – to rid themselves of 20,000 used books they couldn’t sell and which, they say, no one would even take from them for free. 

Tom Wayne amassed thousands of books in a warehouse during the 10 years he has run his used book store, Prospero's Books. His collection ranges from best sellers like Tom Clancy's "The Hunt for Red October" and Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities," to obscure titles like a bound report from the Fourth Pan-American Conference held in Buenos Aires in 1910. But wanting to thin out his collection, he found he couldn't even give away books to libraries or thrift shops, which said they were full. So on Sunday, Wayne began burning his books protest what he sees as society's diminishing support for the printed word. "This is the funeral pyre for thought in America today," Wayne told spectators outside his bookstore as he lit the first batch of books. The fire blazed for about 50 minutes before the Kansas City Fire Department put it out because Wayne didn't have a permit to burn them. Wayne said next time he will get a permit. He said he envisions monthly bonfires until his supply – estimated at 20,000 books – is exhausted.

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