This Tuesday Oct. 23, a public art project by the University’s Institute for Humanities called “Literature vs. Traffic” was installed on Liberty St. Over 10,000 books covered the street all day, and pedestrians were invited to walk through the books and pick from them at night. Among the thousands of Ann Arbor residents who experienced the display were three Daily Book Review writers. These are their stories:
I went to the “Literature vs. Traffic” installment twice on Tuesday, once in the daylight and once after dark. In the daylight, the books looked like a scene straight from that Russian avant-garde film “The Color of Pomegranates” (you should talk to Emily Yang about it), their sun-dappled pages rustling ever so slightly in the breeze, giving the entire installment a sense of gentle motion — reliable aliveness, like that of an ocean. My daylight visit was before they opened the gates to the rabid bibliophiles, but let me tell you that didn’t stop them. I witnessed an elderly woman hop the fence and tiptoe out into the sea of novels and pick up one in particular that caught her eye. On the other side of the installment, one of the volunteers noticed and yelled “HEY, HEY, DON’T DO THAT YET! PUT DOWN THAT BOOK!” Pure comedy, heightened by the imagery of the fence around all the books, not unlike the fence penning in the little concrete stack of books statue outside the Clements library, which always just licked my funny bone. Isn’t it massively hypocritical to erect fences around our books, even the representative ones?
I stole away from my job for 20 minutes at night to revisit the installment, my interest piqued from all the weird books students were bringing to the Perlman Honors Commons. On my power walk over, I witnessed student after student carrying veritable armfuls of weird, old, LED-illuminated titles, something I doubt I’ll ever see again. The eavesdropping was prime: “Where is everyone getting all these books? The local bookstore?” “No, they’re in the street.” In the thick of the installment, pawing through these strange, picked-over tomes, I felt the weird sort of urgency one experiences in a crowded store: the need to examine all the items, to find the one you want before someone else does. It’s a slimy feeling. At least in this case, it was cut a little by a collective mirth at the bizarre selection. The guy next to me pondered aloud who would need a volume of homeopathic remedies for maternity pains, and the woman ahead chuckled at a guide to DIY RV maintenance. I left with an ancient copy of W. Somerset Maugham’s “Cakes and Ale” that I had once seen on a postcard, and “Charles Schwab’s Guide to Financial Independence” in Chinese because I’m not sure when I’m ever going to encounter that again.
—Verity Sturm, Daily Arts Writer
To me, the best part of the installation was watching people’s feet. It’s rare to see crowds of people collectively handling things gently, but if you looked at the ground at the spaces in between the books, you’d see a lot of fully grown adults carefully making their way through the dark street on their tiptoes. Nobody wanted to damage the books, and if anybody stepped on one accidentally, they would almost instinctively jump back. One guy was tripping over himself, trying to run through the crowd while shouting, “WE WON’T HURT THE BOOKS, WE WON’T HURT THE BOOKS.” Everybody around him instantly cleared a path — a collective agreement that books are at least a little bit precious, and we all want to protect precious things.
— Asif Becher, Daily Books Editor
It’s quarter to 8:00, I’m walking home from The Daily newsroom and about five minutes in I’m very perplexed by the mass of people surrounding the intersection of State and Liberty. Ann Arbor streets only ever get this crowded for big sports victories, but the patient huddle gathered in front of me was quite the polar opposite of a revelrous, drunken mass. I had seen the metric ton of tomes coming back from class earlier in the day, but I thought it was nothing more than a 24-hour art installation — and despite the sheer volume of books on the street, my lasting reaction was “cool.” Yet it just happened that I stumbled into the main event of “Literature vs. Traffic” like I do most good things in my life: accidentally. Albeit what I think is a silly name (if you actually want to pit the two entities against each other then remove the barricades, you cowards) I slyly sauntered my way into the magic of the moment. I heard around me that once the clock struck 8:00 any book on the pavement was ripe for the picking. My phone read 7:50 but I think the fact kids were allowed to peruse the literary lot early made onlookers a little jumpy, so I dove in when there was enough people in the middle for me to go unnoticed. My first intention was to find “great books” that I had long missed out on and finally get an excuse to read them, but when the first cover I flipped over was “Heart of Darkness” I realized I wasn’t doing this right. Instead I trounced around looking for the most unwieldy shapes and bizarre illustrations. In a sentence I hope has never been written before, a giddy smile was brought to my face when the cover of a book I picked up read “L. Ron Hubbard: Scientology and the Fundamentals of Thought.” My coffee table is all the weirder now with pickups like “Decorative Victorian Needlework” and a Matlab textbook entirely in Chinese. Street books, thank you for being surreal, mysterious and a reminder of why we love to read in the first place.
— Cassandra Mansuetti, Daily Arts Writer