I try not to be a cynical person, but sometimes it's tough to have hope for the future. One such context is literacy. It seems like most everyone is dropping their books and replacing them with the newest gadgets. While smartphones and technology are great tools, when I see someone holding an iPhone while ignoring a great book in front of them, it seems like they're getting ten smacks instead of using an iPhone XS Max.
Mediocre humor aside, I usually don't have a lot of faith in the viability of the written word because as much as I and other students value it, I've met so many individuals that hate reading books. I've always thought that books will unfortunately become obsolete and no one will lament their disappearance.
My cynicism was what made the night of Tuesday, Oct. 23 so awe-inspiring as I saw hundreds of Ann Arbor residents gathered to see the "Literature vs. Traffic" art installation on Liberty Street put up by the LSA Institute for the Humanities. I was walking back from tutoring a student downtown at night when I saw a traffic jam on the road and crowds of people walking towards a road barricade. As I followed, I saw the crowd had formed an oval, and in the center of the oval were thousands of novels, magazines, dictionaries, thesauruses, kids stories, and dozens of other varieties of books, each one lying wide open. Upon these pages were bright LED lights, creating a galaxy of stars in a sky of words localized on the road. I saw the State Street Theater sign lit up with its neon colors past the installation, the Burton Memorial Tower past that, and the moon's gaze illuminating the scene from above. Besides being a roadblock and sticking it to all the reckless drivers, the scene was a stunning image of light and dark contrasting, with the beloved written word front and center.
What was almost more fascinating was hearing all the other conversations about literature, seeing all the kids running around to see all the books, and being part of a community that all gathered to see these books. I heard so many parents pointing out books to their kids that they'd try to grab after 8:00pm, when the whole collection of 10,000 written works would be opened up to the public. I heard one woman describing a great book she read earlier this year, and her friend sharing a recommendation too. It was reassuring to see that the reading community hasn't been wiped out; we've just gone into hiding, showing ourselves when our pastime is celebrated rather than disparaged.
When 8:00pm hit, instead of the frenzied, chaotic environment you might find at a store on Black Friday, the street became a bookstore that everyone was at. The books filled the ground below everyone as they trudged through to get some interesting finds. The reverence for the books was astounding as everyone tried to avoid stepping on the books and handled them with such care. Even the kids stepped lightly on books and only when they had to.
When we look at a road, we see it as a pathway meant for vehicular traffic at the fastest speed possible. "Literature vs. Traffic" got hundreds of passerby to stop for a peaceful moment instead of continuing on along the road. The installation got us to slow down and appreciate the words that light up in our minds. I'd be a hopeful man if I thought that more of us could slow down once in a while in our busy lives on the road and take some time out to just read. After that night, I think I can afford myself a little more hope and make light of even the darkest of situations.