I enjoy learning in a nonlinear fashion — tracking knowledge like a detective following a lead — and while the internet has greatly facilitated this process, I find that the world of print materials is often my best inspiration. So I’ve decided to start a #ShelfieProject to remind myself (and others) that print libraries and other sources of print materials are great ways to learn in a serendipitous way. Whenever I find an appropriate book or magazine — at a library or a thrift store or wherever print materials present themselves — I plan to follow it wherever it leads me. Below you will find my first shelfie, and the blogpost that the pictured books inspired.
Though I spend many hours on the internet each day, I always enjoy browsing the stacks of a well-stocked library. When I was at the Pima Community College West Campus library recently, I saw a book by Jacques Bonnet called Phantoms on the Bookshelves. Intrigued by the title — and the cover which shows a collection of ghostly pale books on ghostly pale shelves — I took the small volume to a nearby table and began to skim through it. Bonnet has a personal library of over 40,000 books, and he says he has acquired them “[b]y a combination of chance, systematic curiosity, and impulses generated by conversations or reading.” I decided to take a page out of his book, so to speak, and to go wherever my chance encounter with Bonnet took me.
In the context of his discussion of both fictional and real owners of very large private libraries, Bonnet mentions a novel by Giorgio Bassani called The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Bonnet says the professor in Bassani’s novel has more than 20,000 volumes, and on impulse I checked the Pima library shelves and found there the first English translation of the novel, published in 1965. I read the (fictional) Forward and learned that the Finzi-Continis were a family of Italian Jews from the town of Ferrara who were deported to Germany in 1943 and later killed by the Nazis. Having acknowledged this tragic end, the unnamed narrator goes on to tell an ironic coming-of-age story. I decided that I wanted to continue reading, so I borrowed the Bassani novel, along with the Bonnet book.
Besides telling an engaging story of unrequited love, the novel also presents a wealth of details about the period of the Mussolini dictatorship. At first Ferrara’s Jewish community had mixed opinions about Mussolini, and the unnamed Jewish narrator says that his own father joined the Fascist Party in 1933 when membership was opened to everyone. Though some Jews thought this was the patriotic thing to do, the aristocratic Finzi-Continis, who habitually isolated themselves behind the walls of their estate, chose not to join Mussolini’s party.
Then in 1938 Jews begin to feel the effects of new Racial Laws. These included decrees to end mixed marriages, to keep Jews out of state schools, and to forbid Jewish membership in “leisure time clubs.” Because he can no longer use the local tennis club facilities, the book’s young narrator joins a number of other, mostly Jewish students who regularly play tennis on the somewhat dilapidated courts of the Finzi-Contini estate. Later, when the narrator is expelled from the Ferrara public library, Professor Finzi-Contini allows him to use the estate’s huge book collection so he can do research work for his degree. The narrator accepts this invitation, in part because he is infatuated with the professor’s daughter Micòl.
Ferrara’s Jewish community manages to cope with these early violations of their civil rights, but in 1939 Mussolini entered into a military alliance with Germany, called The Pact of Steel, and his positions on race increasingly came to be based on those of the Nazis. Eventually, the 183 members of Ferrara’s Jewish community were deported to Germany, and all but one of them died there.
While I was reading Bassani’s novel, I did some research about fascist Italy online, and, coincidentally, I saw many news articles about Donald Trump’s retweet of a quote by Mussolini. Of course you might say that, compared to calling Mexicans rapists and praising the use of “bullets dipped in pigs’ blood” to kill Muslims, this is not his biggest outrage, but it is a remarkable thing for a presidential candidate to do. I decided, still following Bonnet’s lead, to learn more about it.
First I found a Gawker article called “How We Fooled Donald Trump Into Retweeting Benito Mussolini.” I learned that Gawker’s Ashley Feinberg set a trap for Trump last year by creating a Twitter account that would post Mussolini quotes and attribute them to Donald Trump. Eventually, in February of this year, Trump retweeted that account when it featured the following quote: “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.” The folks at Gawker say that, whether or not Trump is a fascist, he “tweets like one.”
From Gawker I went to the New York Times and learned that while he was on “Meet the Press” Trump said he didn’t know the quote was from Mussolini, but he didn’t care. “‘It’s a very good quote,’ said Mr. Trump. ‘I didn’t know who said it, but what difference does it make if it was Mussolini or somebody else…?'”
Then I read an article translated from Huff Post Italy called “Dear Trump, Better to Live One Day as a Sheep Than One Hundred as Mussolini,” in which Mirella Serri says that the “one day as a lion” maxim was inscribed on the Italian lira in 1928 and also became a motto for Italian soldiers. But she suggests that someone should point out to “America’s overexcited tycoon” that Mussolini was not a lion-hearted conqueror but a man with “a sheep’s soul” who never demonstrated much courage, either in his rise to power or his ignominious end.
Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show, made what I consider to be the best comment on Trump’s fascist retweet. He said, “I don’t blame Trump for retweeting a quote that he didn’t know was from the father of fascism… I have to play devil’s advocate here, you know. That’s not an obvious fascist quote… And by the way, personally, I’ll take living one hundred years as a sheep every time. I’m gonna have to go with that… One day as a lion? You’re just gonna be chasing down and killing things — it sounds exhausting — and then at the end of the day you’re just gonna be killed by some shit dentist from Minnesota… But here’s the thing. Once you do know that it’s a Mussolini quote, then at that point you should care.”
After reading a few more comments about the Trump retweet, I went back to finish Phantoms on the Bookshelves. Bonnet says that, because of the internet and a tendency toward more specialized research, “Bibliophiles will still keep their collections, and libraries devoted to precise topics will survive, but we may be pretty sure that vast and unwieldy personal collections of a few tens of thousands of books are likely to disappear…” Elsewhere, I’ve read that the same thing will happen to all large libraries, as books become increasingly available in digital form. Yet I would not have encountered Bonnet and Bassani for the first time if I had not been browsing the Pima College Library, and I remain convinced that well-stocked libraries complement the internet and digitized resources and cannot be replaced by them.