The Eclectic Reading List at Occupy Wall Street

October 10, 2011 | 12 3 min read

Daniel Norton (foreground), a library science student at the University of Maine, organizes books in the People’s Library at the Occupy Wall Street encampment in downtown Manhattan.

Everyone knows that you are what you read. So to learn more about the protesters who have been occupying Wall Street for the past three weeks, it makes sense to find out what they’re reading. A little bit of everything, it turns out, which speaks volumes about this slippery, funky, and mushrooming movement.

Consider Daniel Norton. A library science student at the University of Maine, he was drawn to the protest site on lower Broadway on Thursday after reading an article in Library Journal calling for librarians to volunteer at the impromptu People’s Library at the northeast corner of Zuccotti Park, which most of the protesters now refer to as Liberty Park.

“What inspired me to come here was that article – and the fact that I’m one of the 99 percent,” Norton said on Friday as he sorted books in the dozen plastic bins that comprise the library’s collection. “I didn’t just want to camp out. I wanted to contribute something. What I’m trying to do now is create order because the premise of library science is the freedom of information and making it available to people. What I’m doing is in the spirit of what’s going on here.”

Donated by protesters and people sympathetic with their cause, the books are divided by category, including History & Resistance, Women’s Studies, Poetry, Government Change, and Fiction. The fiction collection ranges from Tom Clancy to James Joyce, with some J.G. Ballard, George Orwell, and Joseph Heller sprinkled in. Particularly popular are books about politics, history, and how to effect change in government. The books are loaned free, on an honor system. “The collection’s inspired by what’s taking place here,” Norton said. “We have a lot of people who are full of dissatisfaction with a government that doesn’t have their interests at heart.”

coverSteve Syrek, an English Ph.D. student at Rutgers University, responded when he heard that librarians were needed and protesters were hungry for copies of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Syrek bought nine copies and donated them to the People’s Library, along with two copies of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. The books were quickly snapped up. Klein spoke to the encampment on Thursday night, telling the crowd something they were sure to agree with: that what’s plaguing America right now “is not a scarcity problem, it’s a distribution problem.” Michael Moore, who has a new memoir out, was also seen cozying up to television cameras and offering his support.

“Now that the protest has been going on for three weeks and it’s got some momentum, it started to interest me,” said Syrek, who lives in the Washington Heights neighborhood in northern Manhattan. He bristled at the criticism that the movement, which has now spread to dozens of American cities, doesn’t have a coherent message. “People want to know, ‘What’s your agenda?'” he said. “Well, the status quo doesn’t have an agenda. Everyone here, in the aggregate, are people who feel disenfranchised and powerless. It’s perfectly legitimate to be frustrated. I don’t have a solution. I’m not an anarchist. I’m here because I love books.”

Bosses, he seemed to be saying, are the people in suits who work in the cliff-like towers that surround the small park. The leaderless encampment has a free-flowing DIY feel, with some people giving impromptu speeches, some playing music, some reading books, some waving signs and shouting slogans at curious passersby and the small army of New York police officers who are running up a stiff overtime bill keeping an eye on – and sometimes arresting – Wall Street’s occupiers.


Another, carried by one of the volunteer librarians, was even more eloquent: YOU KNOW THINGS ARE MESSED UP WHEN LIBRARIANS START MARCHING.


Images courtesy the author

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk and The Age of Astonishment: John Morris in the Miracle Century, From the Civil War to the Cold War. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.