Why We Need Libraries to Fight Social Inequality

In a district in Berlin among its Turkish residents stood once the Jerusalem Library, not far from the city’s Jewish Hospital. With a gloomy face, 10 year-old me walked up to the building in search of a book to read, as ordered by my mother. There was a new rule in our house at the time, that at least two hours of my day as a third grader with little to no homework was to be spent reading.

Like so many immigrants before and after them, my parents had lost a great deal of their social status, now being scientists with little to no future in their new home country. So while the German state was figuring out how to help parents with children to take care of make a living for themselves  – a pondering process that surprisingly is taking until this day- my  single mother fought my laziness and unwillingness to be curious with the power of books.

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Libreria Alta Acqua, Venice, Italy 2017

Now as an adult, I remember my first independent encounter with books like others remember meeting their romantic partners. Having been an introvert from a very young age, finding myself in a room with hundreds of books to choose from, was like having to make friends in a room full of people I didn’t know. I didn’t know any of these books. Their names, their authors even their appearance marked by several years if not decades of sitting on those shelves were alien to me. Why and how on earth should I pick one book above all others and take it home with me, allowing it into my personal space? And then, as I was about to grab something random for the sake of just taking anything home, I spotted Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on a metal shelf in the middle of the room. I sure knew Harry Potter, so I took that one with me for the next three weeks, happy to have found something familiar. The realization that I started with book three out of seven instead of book one did not appear to me until years later.

Not only did my library visits that followed cure me of my screen addiction, looking back at it all, this library was what helped us children of low social status keep up with kids who were, generally speaking, better off than us. While our more privileged counterparts spent their summers in their holiday homes in Italy or Greece, paid for by their hard-working parents who were either lawyers, doctors, teachers or businessmen, the kids whose parents had no money for vacation because they had to think of how to manage the grocery budget till the end of the month, had the library as a summer retreat. It was with the help of librarians and social workers giving us their time and energy, that instead of wasting our time watching trash-TV in sticky rooms, we had games and other activities to keep us busy every day of summer vacation without paying a single euro.

When school started again and our parents were not able to answer all our questions, we always knew we had the library where there was supervised homework completion.

In Germany the debate on the opportunities of working class children versus children of academics is strongly based on one argument. Summarized to its simplest form: working class children consider themselves at a disadvantage because their parents don’t have money they can spend on cultural activities. Therefore, it is argued, working class children don’t have a chance at the same intellectual development as those  of academics.

This debate is missing one essential point: it is not the amount of times you went to the opera or the art gallery that determine how smart you are. What one needs is an interest in these things and interest is something that needs to come from the person rather than being shoveled down their throats. It was at the library where we not only could cultivate said curiosity for art and music but where we could also practice it. The books, movies and  CDs showed us what the world had to offer. It provided free brain food for those who wanted it and some of us took that as an inspiration to achieve more in life, just like our companions from wealthier families.

I’ll leave it up to the rest of the world to debate whether a person’s interest or even taste in art, music or culture is something that can be bought. There are enough people in this world with money who have never set foot in a museum simply because they don’t care.

It was in this very library where children whose parents had no time or did not speak the language were read to out loud by volunteers. It was among one of those wooden shelves on the first floor where I found an exercise book to practice writing stories. Today, I have this blog to share them. Those who had no computers at home had access to the ones on the second floor in exchange for 50 cents per hour or maybe it was free, I cannot remember.

To many of us it was like a second home. We knew the staff, we met our friends there, we knew every nook and cranny. Ten years ago, I walked across the street to the light blue building only to find it shut down. Our second home, our window to the world and source of free knowledge did no longer exist. When I visit my friends in this district today, I can still see the outlines of the now empty shelves through the windows. It breaks my heart every time.

A few years later, now living in a wealthier part of Berlin, I walked to the library in the building of the town hall to return my copy of Three Comrades after weeks of being sick. I was greeted by closed doors and a note informing me of the shutting down of yet another library. All books were to be returned to somewhere else.

This is  just one story of a library being made unavailable to the public. More and more of them shut down over the years all across Germany due to insufficient funds. And while people debate about (new) ways in which one can fight inequality in a society, I wonder why it is so hard to hold on for a second and look around oneself, at the things, at the resources that we already have but don’t give enough importance to. If we want to give children a chance at curiosity and intellectual growth that shall motivate them to grow into successful adults, we need to give them a space where to start their journey free or of little charge, where everyone is welcome.

What better place can there be than a library?

The Movies and Books That Inspire My Travels

As I grow older I realize how difficult it becomes for me to find a book that really fascinates me. One that I would read while waiting for the train instead of listening to music or that I would secretly get lost in,  the pages hidden under the desk, instead of listening to a lecture I find rather shallow in content.

With time it also becomes difficult to sit through a movie when watching it at home, which is one of the reasons I started learning how to crochet to keep myself in one spot while watching something.

But sometimes there are books and movies or sometimes even songs that just get to you and keep you captivated to the last page or the last scene. In my case books and movies, as early as since 2009, have inspired me to travel to certain places or at least put them on my “To- Do in a Lifetime” list. This is not to say that books and movies always describe places as they really are but at least they have the power to make us curious, which is what I love about them.

So today I have thought of putting together a list of these books and movies. I am not so great with content descriptions so I hope the links will be enough and that you might find something interesting for yourself among these.

Frida (Mexico City): I stumbled upon this film while looking for something autobiographical and based on a true story. I loved the portrayal of this artist’s life so much that at the age of 19, I had decided that one day I must save enough money to go to Mexico City and have a look at her paintings.  I even remember searching for an exhibition of Frida Kahlo art in Germany, only to discover that the last exhibit was in 2010. As it so happens, I seem to have won the lottery of destiny since I now get to live in Mexico City for the next 6 months.

The Fault in Our Stars (Amsterdam): The books of John Green became popular around my peers during my last year while studying in Kosovo. I was touched by this book so much that I felt affected by the events described in the book for the next few days after finishing  it. Since part of this book takes place in Amsterdam, it was an easy decision to choose between the capital of the Netherlands and the city of Prague for my first ever solo trip in Europe at the age of 18 (which has started a series of other solo trips around the world from then on). Too bad some of the places mentioned in the book were fictional. 🙂

The Millenium Trilogy (Stockholm):  Have you ever read a book whose content is actually kind of disgusting but it is that exact detailed description of gruesome things that makes it so irresistible (which is kind of how I feel about Game of Thrones)? I am not a fan of thriller literature by nature but Stieg Larsson definitely convinced me. Since I read this book in 2010, Sweden is on my list of places to visit, so I can follow the steps of my favorite protagonist Lisbeth Salander.

My Beautiful Country (Kosovo): I had seen this movie almost two years after I had left Pristina to return to Germany but I feel like having lived there and with the basic knowledge I had about this place’s history, I enjoyed this movie even more. This is the only movie about Kosovo I know of so far, so dear friends from the region, if you know another movie worth seeing, please let me know in the comments below!

Travels in Blood and Honey: Becoming a Beekeeper in Kosovo (Pristina, Kosovo): If dramatic war movies as mentioned above are not really your thing to get you interested in a place, try this memoir by Elizabeth Gowing. There is something about this writing style and the love of detail that makes me love this book, especially since the author writes about her encounters with the locals and her trips in the region. It’s such a shame I didn’t buy a  signed hard copy of this book when Mrs. Gowing was presenting her work at our school.

The Cemetery of Forgotten Books Trilogy (Barcelona): I have never read a book so vivid with such a variety of characters as the books of this series by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. This way of writing actually made me overthrow and start anew my own book writing project at the time. It tells a very beautiful story and once Barcelone ceases to be either too expensive or too hot for me, I am definitely off to see it!

Eat, Pray, Love (Italy): By the time I read this book and saw the movie, I had actually already been to Rome once. Especially since this seems to be a memoir sort of book, I found it to be very exciting to read about a woman starting life anew abroad and while this book mentions India and Indonesia as well, I was more inspired to get back to Rome once more especially since all of my photos from my first visit are gone. I wonder how much longer until I have the savings to take a language course in Italy!

My Life in France (Paris):  I have started reading this book just yesterday after watching the movie Julie & Julia but by the looks of it, the writing style of Julia Child might get me even closer to my plans of re-visiting Paris. Likewise, The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris by John Baxter should be equally inspiring although I must admit that I have not read it yet.

The Museum of Innocence (Istanbul): I have read that book only months after I had already visited Istanbul and this long, tedious and yet captivating novel by Orhan Pamuk made me regret that I had not read it sooner. Had I read it before going to Istanbul, I may have known to visit the actual museum of innocence. What’s most interesting about it is that the museum was based on the book and not the other way around.

Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution (Havana): While the “sequel” to Dirty Dancing gave me a visual inspiration to visit Havana, the memoir by Alma Guillermoprieto gave me something to imagine and think about so I am very excited that Cuba is only three hours by plane from here.

 

If there are any books or movies that have inspired you to travel, feel free to share them with me in the comments. I am always happy to receive suggestions and make new discoveries.