Libraries and Other Imagined Communities: Background information when reading The Book Collectors

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The Book Collectors

A Band of Syrian Rebels and the Stories That Carried Them Through a War

by Delphine Minoui

The Book Collectors by Delphine Minoui X
The Book Collectors by Delphine Minoui
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2020, 208 pages

    Oct 2021, 224 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Ian Muehlenhaus
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About this Book

Libraries and Other Imagined Communities

This article relates to The Book Collectors

Print Review

In The Book Collectors, a band of Syrian resistance fighters work together to salvage and share books from their bombed-out suburb of Damascus. The book focuses on the protagonists' newfound passion for reading, which helps them cope with the hardships of everyday life during very dark times.

Though it's nice to think that these young revolutionaries decided to create this library due to an untamed passion for knowledge, social scientists have shown that there was probably another, more primal reason behind their actions as well. Libraries, museums, marketplaces and civic structures of all varieties are important vectors in identity creation and community building. They are components of what Michael Billig calls "banal nationalism" — everyday representations and reinforcements of an identity that foster a sense of community and connection.

Another form of banal nationalism that a lot of us see daily, and mostly ignore (hence their banality), are flags. They serve little tangible purpose, yet there they are, waving at us from all directions, particularly near car dealerships. Why?

Flags are important for identity building. They are tools to reinforce our feeling of belonging to a larger, imagined community. An imagined community is essentially any territorial-based identity. Such identities are imagined, because in reality you may have little in common with someone living under the same flag, or even in the same city as yourself, but due to shared institutions and symbology you feel as though you belong together. This is affiliation through symbology and ritual. (For a comprehensive understanding of "imagined communities," I cannot recommend enough Benedict Anderson's classic book by the same name.)

Feelings of community are fostered when you see the same flag flying while visiting Delaware that you see in your home state, or the same rainbow flag hanging from your front porch above the bar in a tavern across town. Flags identify, unite, and as is true with every identity, also exclude. Beyond flags, which are a symbolic method of identity building, institutional norms and buildings also reinforce identity. The Romans and ancient Chinese civilizations were some of the earliest to use the repetition of institutions (e.g., courthouses and arenas) to foster geopolitical control through an imagined community. Today, commercial chains do the same. If you know your way around one Target, you know your way around any other.

In the case of Daraya, creating a functioning library offered the residents of this collapsed suburb an agora — i.e., public space — for community building. The library's size, number of books and windowless location were irrelevant. The library itself offered residents of Daraya a glimmer of hope and normal life in the midst of upheaval.

The library in The Book Collectors flourished, not merely out of love of books, but because it was a key component to building a new, independent identity in the suburb of Daraya. It helped bring together and unify disparate groups of people, united by their suffering. Social interactions occurring in this new agora, such as creating book clubs, hosting lectures, ensuring books were returned on time, were key components of community building that during peaceful times are often taken for granted — as most banal things are.

Though not a perfect comparison, parallels exist in how many local communities in the U.S. are creating new agora-like institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic. The nature of the COVID siege is very different — fear of germs versus bullets, bombs and poison gas — but the effect is similar. Americans' ability to interact and travel has been severely limited — either due to caution or state mandate.

Due to the fact the pandemic has not damaged our telecommunications infrastructure, places and events for socializing have often been reinvented virtually — e.g., online happy hours, book clubs and trivia groups. Where they still exist, drive-in movie theaters have seen a resurgence as traditional cinemas have been forced to shut down. Perhaps nowhere is the human need for community building and maintenance more evident than in the development of learning pods.

Learning pods are micro-community institutions that gained popularity in the spring when the COVID pandemic forced many schools across America to shut down or move online. A learning pod typically consists of no more than two to six households with school-age children. Parents and guardians create a micro-learning environment for all of the children in the households so that they can learn together. The children in the pod learn together, and membership is limited to mitigate the potential for the virus to spread.

Proponents of learning pods argue that socialization is one of the most important aspects of K-12 education. Many believe that learning online cannot fulfill the socialization needs of children and that students learn how to be collaborators and team players by working together.

Did learning pods flourish because Americans suddenly found an unyielding desire for their children to learn in groups? Some parents genuinely fear that online learning is subpar, but this probably doesn't fully explain the phenomenon. Rather, as happens anytime community institutions are destroyed, sequestered or unavailable, humans create new ones. Not only do these new institutions fulfill their explicit functions in the community, they help us build and maintain new relationships and feelings of belonging in a world of uncertainty.

Filed under Society and Politics

Article by Ian Muehlenhaus

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Book Collectors. It originally ran in November 2020 and has been updated for the October 2021 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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