Why we care about the library in Leipzig

By Maria Westerberg. Maria, 45, is from Stockholm, Sweden. Please read her entry and leave your thoughts and comments below.

One can simply attack a topic, dissect it, agree, disagree and state a point of view. Or, one can slowly get closer to it by going through a back door with an open mind and with the intention to stretch the level of thinking.

French writer Victor Hugo was loved by the people and despised by the nonsocialists. He believed in education. He is frequently quoted and one of his famous sayings is “He who opens a school door, closes a prison”. It seems rather obvious, simple and true. Education lowers the rate of crime. Several studies support that correlation. Now to the back door and the creative thinking.

The Flanders Road, a tiresome, dreamlike masterpiece without punctuation by the Nobel prize awarded writer Claude Simon tested my patience. I was about to give up when I reached the pages worth the effort. The main character is caught in a war. He is surrounded by blood, death and misery. His father is in a letter expressing grief about the library in Leipzig that was destroyed by air raids and valuable books were forever lost. The son is getting upset. With right. He. Couldn’t. Care. Less. About. The. Library. In. Leipzig. He is immediately replying with listing things that, in his situation, would be much more useful to him than books. Like socks, chocolate and cigarettes. And the books could obviously not prevent the war, so they might as well be destroyed.

So finally, something in the book triggers my interest and I was at first, with full heart agreeing, since it is so direct and emotional. It is a matter of life and death. Then the nagging started. And continues. So precious and important is literature for the human being and for the creative soul. Not as important as a human life… but close second, since knowledge is our core and our power, which is proved by its threat. Of fear for it, books have been burned. On purpose. Writers banned from their countries. On lifetime. Journalists put to jail. Without trial. Entire populations denied access to social media, news and truth. For real. Through history people have been denied education and enlightenment to stay suppressed and controlled.

The statement from Victor Hugo can be looked at from many perspectives and analysed in different ways. The prison that first comes to our minds is the one with bars, the punishment, that physically stops us from engaging in life by limiting our freedom. And there we have the magical word, freedom. Freedom is having a choice and having a choice is being in control of the future. We can shape it the way we want to, unless we limit ourselves and put our minds in prison. (A well-known phenomenon in fortunate parts of the world.) Education is a way to reach self-control and independence. So besides from keeping youth away from the streets, going to school leads to freedom, self-value, context and belonging and is therefore crime preventing with personal, economic and social benefits. But nothing is ever that simple, there is always exceptions and question marks.

A good way to gain freedom and education is to be born in a democracy. It is not a rule, but it is then more likely that you will have the right to study despite socioeconomic situation or gender. In societies that are democratic and that strive to be equal, it is better to be born in a family which support and encourage studies, preferably parents with academic backgrounds that can help with homework, with time and with money. Also make sure you are born in the right neighbourhood and community. Do not belong to a minority that has been suppressed. Then you are more likely to be poor and without support when it comes to education and the risk is higher to get in trouble. A specific minority will be accused of being more prone of committing crime and the majority will close their eyes and refuse to see the correlation of suppression-crime.

Poverty and living in unequal societies are a form of prison. Victor Hugo had, for the time he was living in, the courage to speak and write about segregation and social injustice. He was pleading human rights and specifically pointed out rights for women and children. Even in our time, it is better to be born male than female. In some parts of the world girls, for different reasons, are less likely to be offered education and if they are, it is often for a limited time. Education is for women essential to break free from suppression and control. She who opens a school door, closes the prison of dependency.

Maybe Victor Hugo also meant that we through education and knowledge can help and encourage others. To become that teacher that inspires, that journalist that reveals injustice, that neighbour that sees the one in need for help, or that doctor working in refugee camps. I am sure there are a lot of people who can think back to a specific moment with a specific person that believed in them or helped them. A moment, a person, an action or just a few words that changed their lives.

From poverty, injustice and tragedies determination is born.  Many times, in my safe corner of the world, I have been sitting on my safe couch watching news from unsafe areas. There is almost always an interview with a child. They always get questions about their future and dreams. The reply is always clear. They want to go to school. They want to make a difference.

Another way to close a prison is to turn it into a school. The recidivism rate lowers with education programs. The higher the education, the lower the risk of going back to crime.

Last, we can narrow it down to the personal prison. The prison we create when we think we don’t have a choice. Or is it that we have to many options? Today it is easy to seek distraction. Internet and smartphones are amazing tools. It is like having information and knowledge served on a plate. But it is also another drug and time thief. Our phones are attached to us with invisible chains and if we lose it, we get completely lost and confused. Like new-borns left in a forest. We need phone free days and nature. Let us make that a law.

About the back door. Since I started school I have been reading books. Through books I learned about the world. The outside world and the world I have inside of me. My teachers sometimes had a hard time finding me a book I hadn’t read, and my mother had to confiscate books for me to get some sleep. I read The Count of Monte Cristo twelve times. I won’t read it again. I am afraid I as a grown up won’t understand the magic. I sometimes get jealous of children, I want to discover the world again. Bookstores and libraries are temples, they give me peace and activates my fourth chakra. With words I can’t describe what an impact reading and books have had on my life. I’m sure they made the whole difference. Even the boring books written by Nobel Prize winners. You never know when they can turn useful. Maybe you will be touched or engaged or annoyed. Maybe the lack of punctuation will make you forever overuse periods and commas. Maybe, if you are lucky, you find that sentence that triggers your creativity.


2 comments on “Why we care about the library in Leipzig

  1. Paul Burnham on

    Maria – I very much enjoyed reading your essay. It made me think of “shoshin”, a word from Zen Buddhism that means “beginners mind” and is a reminder to always keep an open mind. Also, I agree 100% with your suggestion that we have phone-free days and lots of nature. Well written. Thanks for sharing.

    • Maria Westerberg on

      Thank you for reading and for kind words. It means a lot. I’ll look “shoshin” up and I’ll skip the phone sometimes to listen “loudly”. 🙂


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