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Life as Performance Art

 My late friend George was a researcher.  If it interested him, and everything did, there was no subject too great or small for him not to devote considerable time and energy into looking into it in detail. A year or so before they were planning on an extensive trip to China, George started making his list of guidebooks, research books, novels, and other books about China. In all, he had some fifty books on his list.
He never bought a single one. That is because Amazon started promoting a new product they called the Kindle.  Like millions of others, George discovered he could download an electronic edition of most of his books into one, lightweight, battery powered, “Reader.”  Everything was all in one little rechargeable black device that fit in his pocket.
“You can adjust the lighting to read it on the plane and not wake up others or darken it when it is too sunny outside. And you can adjust the size of the print, and electronically make notes on anything to go over it again.”
I was impressed, and that autumn reminded Pat that a Kindle seemed like a really good idea, just in case she was wondering what Santa should bring me for Christmas.
She, or maybe it really was Santa, gave me one for Christmas, and I started downloading free books that I anticipated reading in the future.  I have the entire collection of Elbert Hubbard’s Little Travels books, Ruskin’s three volume set of The Stones of Venice, and an assortment of other wonderful obscure books.
The Kindle went with me when we went to Paris, but there I encountered something even better, the fabled Bouquisites.  They are the 240-some olive drab steel bookstalls that line the Seine River for about two and a half miles. As someone pointed out, that means the city is the only place in the world where a major river runs between bookshelves.
The Bouquisites have been in operation for some four hundred years. They are loved by the residents and visitors of the city, and hated by the government. A long line of collective of King Louis’s tried getting rid of them. Napoleon and his chairman of the urban renewal department, Baron Haussmann, tried to close them down.  So did the Nazi when they took occupied Paris.  De Gaulle wasn’t very fond of them, either.  But none of these high-powered individuals put an end to the enterprising owners of these stalls.
The owners pay rent for their stall, but after that, it is up to them to set their own hours and decide what they want to sell.  A fellow selling sheet music from the 1920s might be camped out next to someone selling 1940’s Fascist literature who is next to someone selling medieval love poetry.  In short, they have stood up to the censors for four centuries.  Most of their books are so old or obscure there is a good chance they are the only copy still in existence.
The stall owners stood up to them all, even when threatened with torture, prison, or execution.  The current president of the stall owners said, “It’s not a job;  it is a way of life.”  By that, he went on to explain, it means they are doing their part to protect the freedom of the press, the freedom to read, and the freedom to think.
Of course, the Bouquisites and their books are not nearly as efficient as the electronic reader. In many ways, they are better.  There is nothing quite as satisfying as a real book in one’s hands.
I write that for two simple reasons.  First, a few years ago the owner of a copyright on a popular book got into a kerfuffle with the owners of Kindle.  To make a long story short, the copyright people told Kindle to take their book off their list or they would sue.  What made this especially noticeable as that people who had paid for the book thought they owned it. They did not. They had merely leased it.  The e-book was pulled for a few days, and then after matters were resolved, it was once again available.
That could happen to anything.  Someone could give the order to the third assistant to the geek in charge of pushing buttons to cancel a book or article,  and that would be the end of it. Or, someone in the government could decree that the book was subversive to their ideology and make it disappear.
The possible danger is magnified with the growth of Artificial Intelligence.  They have the ability to change the text to suit their purposes.
The other possibility is that one of these days the sun is going to have a big hiccup and send a solar flare our way that shuts down a lot of things, from our electronic communications to our banking to what is on our reader.  All those books we leased so we could read them later, will be gone.
That is one reason I like to hold on to some of the old technology. A landline phone still works when the power is off, assuming, that is, that the telephone lines aren’t down. An emergency stash of cash will see us through the challenges when the ATMs and credit cards aren’t working. A stash of candles will provide sufficient light to read a real book where we have to manually turn the pages, when our electronic readers wink out.  As for entertainment, I have a big supply of steal needles for my Victrola.
All of which gets us back to the Bouquisites of Paris. They have survived for four hundred years, but once again, they are under threat. This time it is from the Summer Olympics that have picked Paris for this next summer’s games.  Their security people want the metal boxes gone. It’s too easy, they claim,  for someone to plant a bomb inside one.
The stall owners are not ready to yield, even if they are promised a new location for the weeks leading up to and then after the Olympics. They are more concerned about the freedom of the press and the dangers of censorship from the likes of some tin pot Fearless Leader.  Good for them.
There is certainly a place for our electronic devices, like the ‘readers.’  They are certainly convenient and easily carried.  Convenience is not always the most Important factor.
Early in World War Two, the Secretary of War signed the orders for millions of copies of The Practical Cogitator to be distributed to every man and woman in uniform.  The book was a compendium of essays about classical philosophy, science, inventions, and the political thoughts of our Founding Fathers.  His rationale was simple:  If the country was asking our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines to make tremendous sacrifices for the United States, they needed to be given an opportunity to understand the reasons for which they were fighting.
That need to understand the basics of American history and its ethos is just as important today as it was when Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini were trying to take over the world. Today, we have a new set of despots, and perhaps some additional ones waiting in the wing.  The strongest defense we have are well-read and well-educated citizens who will decide that “not no-one, not no-how” is going to do their thinking for them.
Those Bouquisites who refuse to be moved out of sight and out of the way, give us a good example of what is important.

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