this is the oldest building belonging to the library of congress. this place is a work of art, but it's also legitimately confusing inside, it feels very compartmentalized, like completely separate crews from entirely different decades built each corridor, each hall, every room.
upon entering, you walk through the metal detector and enter an atrium. this isn't one of the beautiful rooms in the links above, you can sense some history in the room but you see nothing but old wood, some dark hallways, and a few decrepit elevators. a maroon signboard pointing down a certain passage marks the way to apply for a library card. the sign is cheap plastic and clearly an afterthought affixed by some practical librarians frustrated by confused visitors bothering them for directions, but i didn't have anywhere pressing to go so i let myself be led by the sign. the lighting down that way isn't good, you're surrounded by dark wood on both sides and there's the smell of the dank dark pink carpet, but the most striking thing is the almost residential feeling of the place. an old patterned wooden door had another sign for cards on it, but when i opened it, it felt invasive, like i was a visitor at someone's house who'd gone to use the upstairs bathroom, but while up there was curiously going around opening bedroom doors. and inside it was a low-tech operation, a woman at a desk cluttered with papers who had me fill out my information with a pen on a sign-up sheet mounted on a clipboard. they did have some on-site way to run off a card for me right on the spot though, and armed with that i wandered back to the elevator lobby, ready to explore.
look at this. this place is huge and basically a labyrinth. the interesting thing about the library of congress, at least at the thomas jefferson building, is that it's not busy. you're free to just kind of roam around, so you walk into rooms without knowing where you're going, and there's dozens and dozens of rooms. here's another picture i found online: http://bookseedstudio.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/loc-childrens-cozy-may-2009.jpg?w=1024&h=768. i don't even know if this room is in the thomas jefferson building or not, it's the children's literature center and i just found the picture, but this is basically what you're up to, you open wooden doors like the one in the picture and burst into these empty musky-smelling rooms stocked with books and sofas. it also seems like half the building is roped off by those standard velvet ropes hooked onto gold little stands but there's no one guarding them, you can literally just walk past them into other "off-limits" areas, which i quickly ended up doing.
something in my guidebook was talking about a cartography room that was supposed to have all kinds of old maps on display, which sounded really interesting. but the map i needed to get there, the one in the guide book, didn't seem to correspond whatsoever with the actual reality of the place. soon, stubbornly attempting to find my way, not only was i completely lost, but in my search i'd also forayed deep into a roped off area, poking into all these rooms looking for the exhibit. and these forbidden rooms look and feel pretty much just like the rest of the rooms, there was no apparent visible reason why they were roped off to begin with. most of the rooms in the jefferson bulding are labeled with certain names, the african center or the children's room, i don't know, but many of these rooms weren't labeled at all.
at this point i'd completely lost myself, i was turning through various corridors, a corridor would open into an atrium, and from the atrium there'd be four more corridors to choose from. i came upon another set of ropes guarding a stairwell, and for some reason decided i should proceed on by. at the stairs i went down a level. everywhere in the jefferson bulding feels like some hopeless romantic got a hold of a dimming dial, but this floor was even darker than the last, like the guy was getting particularly desperate. after walking along the hall a bit i ducked into a random doorless room. this room was full of what seemed like a bunch of unsorted books waiting to be organized and moved into other rooms, but they were all caked in a layer of dust thick enough to suggest they'd been untouched for years. embracing the voyeuristic feeling i mentioned before, and finally giving up all hope of finding my map exhibition, i picked through a few volumes (leaving serious finger prints on them). most of them seemed kind of unofficial, like unpublished manuscripts. they were alternately bound by some kind of tape, by strings, rings, and other ad-hoc methods. the third or fourth one i picked up had a more typical, official type of binding, but had no title on the spine. it was really by complete chance i ended up leafing through it, but the topic kind of interested me so i just started reading. that's the book i'm going to talk about here.
it's written by this anthropologist, graham spensky (i think), and it's talking about maybe like a primitivist ideal. i was suddenly feeling guilty for being back there and reading it, like it was some kind of forbidden knowledge, and i ducked behind the stack before i started reading. i try not to be a luddite but you may have noticed i've written a lot on here about how i think the internet keeps people from living, it keeps us chained to computer chairs compromising our fitness, gives us weak excuses for socialization (like message boards!) leading to a stunted, unrewarding social life, etc., but it's so easy and effortless that we can't resist. oftentimes i've wondered if we're any better off with our current technology than we may have been in the past, so this book caught my interest.
and i start reading this spensky book, and i start thinking, wow... if this could be done, it could be real. considering i wasn't even supposed to be in this room, i knew i couldn't check it out or anything, and anyway, it wasn't even barcoded, so most of what i'll explain here is based on memory. in a few places i can do a bit better than that though. this stack of books that i hid behind wasn't actually that high by the way, so i had to kind of crouch uncomfortably, and there was no seat or table back there either, but i raced through basically the entire thing. it wasn't that long, something a bit less than a hundred pages, but it took a few hours and once in awhile i'd hear footsteps outside and i'd quickly slam the thing shut for some reason and lose my spot, and then when i got the courage to open it back up it'd take me another 5 minutes to trace back to where i was.
ok, but anyway, so "spenskyism" as ill call it is an unusually interesting kind of primitivism because it's not actually primitivism at all. spensky does advocate going back to the basics, but he actually doesn't rule out technology or society or city centers. instead, he recommends people organize in what basically seem like pies. imagine a plot of land prescribed within a circle, and then imagine that circle is sliced up like a pizza (big pizza fan right here btw). each "slice" of pizza would be a family farm. but these are really big slices, so i wanna note that he's not just talking about a small nuclear family but in fact like an extended family, or almost a compound, and the homestead is at the inside of each slice, close to the center. but continuing the pizza analogy, you know those little tables they sometimes put in the box? maybe something proportional to that, although i think he's envisioning something slightly bigger, but yeah, there's a circle in the middle of these pies blotted out, and that's not farmland. instead, that's a village center, and everyone is situated around that hub. it'd be the commercial axis these farms converge on, and it'd have its own residences, people that can provide services like doctors, blacksmithing, carpentry, primary schooling, fermentation/beer brewing (yay), and god i don't even remember much else, community theaters, but it's the blacksmith that really caught my attention, it's such a throwback occupation that you read about in all your fantasy novels and so on, but in any case, it's enough to make these units little self-sufficient medieval socieities.
after i finally finished this little book i tucked it under my shirt like i was smuggling samizdat and i slipped down the hall, up another flight of stairs, navigating at random until i found a reading room populated by a few pathetic looking patrons. i went to the photocopier there and ran off spensky's diagrams. it was funny because just xeroxing the book i felt like some kind of criminal stealing intellectual property, quickened pulse and everything, even though copying from books was obviously allowed. i forced myself to just act natural despite the irrational current of fear. i copied the page without incident, and took that copy into work eventually and scanned it, so i can actually share the diagrams. the village layout talked about above can be seen here:
one particularly interesting thing about spensky is that this wasn't just a proposal for planning. obviously it was that, he's talking about a society that doesn't require any fuel or pollution at its basic units, and uses minimal electricity anywhere. it's something that organizes people in settled communities that remain sustainable... there was even a long dull part about crop rotations, like each slice of the pie follows a long-term schedule, so they're farming different crops from each other and rotate together, where one compound picks up the crop the next guy was farming, as he moves on to something else across different years.
but what he also went into is mental and physical health. he mentions his anthropological background a few times, i saw somewhere he had a phd, and i don't know if that makes him qualified to talk about that stuff, but he first of all had a section about how people would live longer, how physically they'd be more engaged and no longer sedentary, which would increase longevity, and how they'd be fit thanks to their trades and healthier diets with less, if any, meat and without junk food and the like. but he also talks about how psychologically, the human brain didn't evolve to live in this kind of global world. maybe this insight is legitimate and smart or maybe it's below even pop psychology, but he talks about how all kinds of issues (self-esteem, depression, etc.) are syptoms of modern society.
spensky says that the more global the world becomes, the more alienated its people are, and the more insignificant we feel. we're aware that we're basically small and meaningless. i'm not really sure if i can give this section justice, because it was one of the most convincing things i'd ever read. if the celebrities, the rich and famous in our world, exist as the standard of success, that's a very high bar for a normal person to meet. we feel impotent and like we're not leaving our mark on the world. and yet we need celebrities and star athletes, because when we meet new people, they're our common touchstone and the people we know in common, what connects us with all these strangers out there. his claim is that's the reason folks buy all those People magazines and listen to celebrity gossip whatever, it makes the global local, but as we learn what these attractive and important people are doing, we also feel they are far above ourselves. obviously the results are depression, or at least discontent, along with body image issues and a plethora of other problems. throughout the hundreds of thousands of years of homo sapien history, we didn't mentally or psychologically evolve to handle a world like this. spensky is proposing something that better lines up with how humans are actually meant to live.
when society is scaled back to these small spensky units, everyone suddenly has a place. we no longer meet strangers, we know everyone in our community, or at least of everyone in our community. we no longer need a celebrity class to connect us to each other, because everybody knows everybody else, and we each can find our place with an occupation within the town. everyone has a purpose, and people won't feel unfulfilled. there's also a sense of community where people can meet up in the bar or for festivals and whatnot, which keeps people, including elderly people, engaged, which interaction in turn exercises their mental agility and their improves quality and length of life.
in one part of the manuscript, spensky (i'm quite sure his name was spensky) goes on to talk about how these theories are already being put into practice. this was really fascinating and hard to believe, but he mentions antelope oregon and talks about a pilot program which was getting underway at the time of his writing. one small spensky unit to start from and he says an experimental town was already being built and went on to talk about how successful it was going to be and the bright future ahead and so on, he wrote about it with great optimism as something that was actually happening among a group of pioneers and believers, and for all i know, there's actually a society like this happily existing somewhere off the grid in oregon to this day.
but wait, there's more. spensky doesn't eschew science. that's why i said he's not really a primitivist. i mentioned schooling before, and apparently, the best students can have the opportunity to move to city centers. yes, there's still cities and electricity in spensky's utopian vision. it's limited, of course, and isn't present at the village level at all, but in the cities, it's there. i mentioned the village "pies" already. now picture a bunch of these pies grouped together. since these units are circular in shape, there will always be lots of gaps between them. this land is scheduled as wildnerness, undeveloped by these societies and forbidden from intrusion except for hunter-gatherer types, which apparently a romantic streak required he include in this vision. he covered them for a chapter but i don't think they're relevant to anything else in this society so i'm not going to go into detail there, and in fact i skimmed that part.
but anyway, he's got a bunch of these pies grouped together, and in the center of these groups of pies are the cities. the cities house all the stuff mentioned before like i don't know, the blacksmiths, right? but also universities and hospitals. spensky is keen on medical research and wants it to be continued, and these hospitals and universities are where ailing people can be sent to when they can't be properly tended to in their villages. if there is something that needs to be industrially produced it can also be done here. it was over a year ago i read this so i'm not sure what examples of permissible industrial production might be, but i do believe that writers and printing presses reside here, for example. here's the other diagram from page i scanned, which demonstrates the "city" concept:
now imagine a bunch of those units, the "states," grouped together again with again more wilderness between them, and another, larger city in the middle of that. politically if you have a group of states with their own state capitals joined together around an even bigger city, you'd probably assume the states make up a nation, and that supercenter is the national capital. that's somewhat accurate but it's important here to note that when spensky uses the term "capital" he doesn't mean a political capital. there are no politics of note at all in his vision. there's only the preexisting planning on which society is built, and that planning is set in stone and supposed to be eternal in scope, because he believes this kind of life would be not just sustainable but basically unchanging, generation after generation would live in the same way by the same rules, following these same crop rotation patterns that are designed on a scale of decades and then repeat.
spensky cites all sorts of other writers from thoreau on to more esoteric names. his argument was convincing, and not only did i buy the argument, i also bought that he was educated and knew his stuff, and i really wish i'd been able to take some notes. but that's because i've always been impressed by this primitivist type of idea. the rest of you are probably feeling skeptical or smirking at the whole concept. so, it's with reluctance that i mention this last bit, which will probably discredit his idea with you even more, but he wrote at length on this topic, so if i'm going to give an honest report i guess i shouldn't lie by omission. here it goes: he had a whole chapter where he went into a kind of impassioned argument in support of nudism, which i kind of skimmed past. i read a few bits and it actually had some sort of reasoning i don't recall behind it, but for the most part i ignored all of this. the redeeming, cool thing about it actually was that it drove home what an awesomely weird tract i was reading.
that's about all i can remember to report here. after finishing reading the book and discretely copying the page posted here, i ditched it in the reading room and hurried out the jefferson building like i'd just completed some sort of heist. i should have tucked the book back into that off-limits room where i found it. i've been back to the library of congress since then a few times, skulking through the roped off halls, slipping into patronless rooms, and trying to seek out even more fun weird books. it always feels like an adventure. i did make my way back to that same room a second time, and it looked exactly like i remembered it, so i thought of the spensky book, but there was just a gap where it used to be. my thought is that it must never have been filed back to where i originally found it, instead probably disappearing into some other strange room in that labyrinthine building.
another time sneaking past some ropes i was actually intercepted by a security guard seemingly materializing out of nowhere, but all he did was turn me around and send me on my way. as far as spensky goes, i have one final update to append here at the end. just for the sake of this post, i made one final attempt to find his book this weekend, because i really wanted to verify some of this stuff or copy more pages (maybe the entire book). i got back to what i think was the room again with no trouble, but this time all the book racks were draped with black sheets, and i didn't have it in me to unveil them. somehow getting caught sneaking into secret rooms and picking books off shelves seemed like something i could shrug off, like i just got lost, but being spotted rooting around under a sheet would be hard to explain away. i've searched for spensky on google and haven't found anything online, so the best i can do is to basically do what i've done here, paraphrasing the thing and attaching the photocopy i have from the original source. i know the theory we're talking about here probably relies on fantasy, but i found the ideas very enticing and just thought i'd share, and hopefully at least for diamond_galas finds this interesting.