The Human Library

Posted: May 4, 2017 in Uncategorized
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By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

This past weekend, I had an extraordinary encounter with “The Human Library.”

An art experience and an exercise in communality, The Human Library originated in Denmark, “developed in Copenhagen in the spring of 2000 as a project for Roskilde Festival by Ronni Abergel and his brother Dany and colleagues Asma Mouna and Christoffer Erichsenas” and has since grown into a “Worldwide movement for social change,” offering the opportunity to have a meaningful conversation with someone who has a unique story to tell, an exercise in listening and togetherness that has become too infrequent.

A “Human Library” is staffed by volunteers who play the roles of “Librarians” and “Books.” The “Librarians” acclimate the visiting “readers” to the process, establishing parameters and ground rules, which are set forth in a comforting statement.

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Human Libraries allow external participants (readers) to choose from a selection of individuals (books) with unique histories or attributes about which they are willing to talk. Readers are permitted to ask the human books questions during a fifteen-minute conversation.

I encountered the Human Library Chicago, at The National Veteran’s Art Museum and become a “reader” of a human book. At the event, there were approximately ten books on offer, and most of them were busy being “read” when I arrived. I looked at the available titles and selected a “book” who was a Vietnam Veteran.

The opportunity to speak to a veteran—specifically about his wartime experience—seemed particularly fascinating, and the conversation that I had with Ned was even more remarkable than I had anticipated.

Ned was tremendously forthcoming. He explained his service. He was an officer who, at 23 years old, took command of 197 men for one year-long tour in Vietnam from 1970-1971.

I asked him what it was like, what he remembered.

His responses overflowed with honest, vivid imagery. He talked about the smells: rot and fire and shit; the sounds; the singular noise made by bullets whizzing through the leafy jungle; the terrain: earthy, mud in the wet season, grit in the dry.

I asked him what he missed. He recalled food cravings in vibrant detail. He longed for chilled orange juice, cereal with icy milk, and cold Coca-Cola.

I asked him if he was able to befriend any of his men, but he explained how any personal relationships would have made his command more difficult. I realized, then, how profoundly lonely he must have been.

“Yes,” he agreed, “lonely.”

Lonely and tired and scared and far from home.

I’ve always been interested in the events and history surrounding the war, and cognizant of the intensely painful complexities that make Vietnam a fraught topic.

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I was overcome with emotion at The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, as countless others have been, and are, and will be. Aware of the depth of the loss present in the names etched in dark stone, Maya Lin: A Strong, Clear Vision is a superb documentary about the selection of Maya Lin’s work for that important tribute which underscores the complexity of the lasting impact of Vietnam. The new documentary from PBS, The Vietnam War, by Ken Burns, will offer amazing insights as well.

Naturally, I am eager to take part in future “Human Library” experiences, as a reader, book, or librarian. I am hopeful that this new means of practicing empathy and fostering conversation will continue to grow understanding.

My conversation with Ned deepened my appreciation for the men and women in the US military. Ned’s willingness to share his story with strangers is an act of phenomenal generosity.

Talking to Ned, looking into his eyes, connecting with him, laughing with him, and learning from him was an unforgettable experience. I am grateful to him for his service, and for permitting me to read his story.

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