The power of reading really struck me as I stood in front of the packed crowd assembled at the PRO QM bookshop for the launch of Anja Schwanhäußer’s new book. Having spent the day in Berlin, a city haunted not only by its Nazi past but also the Iron Curtain, it was extraordinary to be here talking about our shared interest in city life but also a fascination with the same philosophers & writers (Benjamin, de Certeau, Massey, Perec, Levi, Hall) and urban ethnographers (Willis, Becker, Behar). There is no wall that can stop movements of imagination and neither can immigration officers detain or exclude ideas for long.
Earlier that day I had visited the square opposite the Frederich Wilhelms University (renamed the Humboldt University in 1949) where thousand of books were burned by Nazi students on the night of the 10th of May, 1933. In the 1890s African American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois would almost certainly have past through this square during his Berlin studies. The images of students going into their library and stripping ‘unGerman’ ‘degenerate’ books from the shelves by the armful remains terrifying. Groups of people had gathered today as a refusal of the memory and its deep offense against the life of the mind. In the April sunshine they read books together in public while languishing on large multi-coloured beanbags provided especially for the occasion. It was a beautiful act of gentle defiance.
As I lay there in the sun reading Anja’s collection something else struck me about how ideas resonate across the boundaries of language. These were people that I had yet to meet but somehow our shared love of the same books had already made us companions. Sensing the City includes wonderful essays from Howard S. Becker, Ruth Behar, Rolf Lindner & Löic Wacquant but also Nele Brönner’s fantastic ethnographic comics that bring its authors graphically – and sometimes embarrassingly – to life.
Anja hosted the discussion that night which included fellow contributors Rolf Lindner and Moritz Ege. The fact of it alone just amazed to me. We listened to Moritz talk about the classed meanings associated with Picaldi style jeans in Berlin, while the audience endured my descriptions of the love inscribed in working-class tattoos delivered – without realising it – in a south London brogue that must have been hard for the Berliners to decipher. Rolf Lindner’s phrases echoed in my mind: “Cities have their authors just as authors have their cities.” The event was not just a celebration of a wonderful new book but also of a way of thinking together and living with books.
Images by Stefan Klinker
Les Back is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths College, University of London.
Anja Schwanhäußer is a Berlin based urban anthropologist and Street-Art-activist. She publishes books on cities, popular culture and subculture and teaches at various Universities, including Humboldt-University Berlin.