Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
The Brooklyn Public Library teamed up with the French Embassy for a festival that argues that slow, deliberate thinking matters more than ever.
Late Saturday night, as throngs of protestors swarmed the John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens to rail against President Trump’s partial moratorium on immigration, a different crowd grew 12 miles away. In the soaring Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, hundreds of people were assembling to stay up all night and debate what it means to be human.
The library was open all through the ebony hours, as one of the venues of La Nuit des idées, a festival that took place in over 30 cities across the globe. The Brooklyn incarnation, “A Night of Philosophy and Ideas,” was produced by the library and the French Embassy.
Around 8:30 p.m., a presentation on borders was groaning at the seams. In the back of the room, some attendees gave up trying to listen to the muffled speaker, plopping down on their coats in the stacks between the Criminal Forensics and Elder Care collections. Others breached the librarians’ stations, arranging themselves near flopped-open dictionaries.
Some participants seemed to be in it for the hashtags; others were more studious, scrunching their eyebrows and jotting down notes. A man with a thin-cropped mustache and a glossy, ankle-length fur coat took a selfie with two friends, leaning across a table with three espresso drinks littered between them.
At 9 p.m., Sheron Lewis was sitting in the back of a lecture she couldn’t get quite close enough to hear. “Philosophy has always been my cup of tea,” 45-year-old Lewis told me. She lives nearby, and heard about the event from an email blast. She wouldn’t stay all night—it sounded too taxing, and she needed to get home to her kids. But she planned to hang out for a few hours, at least. “It’s January,” she said. “Everybody wants new beginnings.”
Plus, she added, everyone could stand to prioritize considered, rational thought.
Here, philosophy wasn’t only something to read or listen to: It was something to watch, or rehearse. Throughout the night, bodies were packed three deep on the walkway overlooking the atrium. Down below, attendees abdicated patches of floor for Trisha Brown’s dancers, who repeated buoyant, pedestrian steps every few hours until 6:30 a.m. A line snaked along the periphery, inching toward the temporary bar set up on a circulation desk. On the other side of the lobby was a continuous screening of the 2014 film Tokyo Reverse, a nine-hour-long jaunt in which a man strolls the streets of Tokyo while everyone around him paces backwards.
Nearby, a local stationery store was hosting a drop-in handwriting clinic, where participants traced flouncy letters with inkwells and nubs. One guy looped the “f” over and over, quill in one hand and his cell phone in the other.
László Jakab Orsós, the library’s newly installed vice president of arts and culture, says these stations were “mischievous suggestions” to goad guests into practicing slowness and stillness. It took a lot of effort. “I think we are speeding up, and we believe in speed maybe too much. If you slow down and you relearn handwriting, you might come up with different thoughts,” he adds.
The concrete tasks were also an effort to dismantle the idea that philosophy hovers in some elusive, far-off space inhabitable only by the most pretentious people at the bar, or cloistered academics. “Philosophy is an abstract language,” Orsós says. “But it shouldn’t remain at that inaccessible level.”
This brainy slumber party resisted being written off as cloying Brooklyn whimsy. While the programming, Orsós explains, wasn’t an explicit response to a fractious social and political climate, it took a careful and sweeping look at how we practice democracy.
Orsós approached potential lecturers with three broad themes rooted in the modern moment: slowness, democracy, and artificial intelligence. Philosophers hung shingles throughout the night for the Dilemma Series, discussing a handful of familiar scenarios: cultural appropriation, illness. Guest speakers—philosophers including Simon Critchley and Gayatri Spivak—interpreted Orsós’s marching orders in a variety of ways. Some of the dozens of talks were titled: “Why Our Robots Are So Stupid and How to Fix Them,” “The ‘Post-Truth’ Era: Modern Politics and the Linguistic Turn,” and “On the Urgent Need for Critical Thinking.”
And what better place to double down on a commitment to rational, considered thought than here in this public repository of its products?
Librarians used to field all sorts of questions that are now outsourced to Siri and Google. It’s no longer necessary, for instance, to consult a reference librarian for insight into the color of fox’s eyes, or what’s up with the moon. But algorithms haven’t yet been able to tackle some of those gnawing questions that also beg for answers. What’s a punishable offense, and who should decide? How should humans interact with animals and robots?
“Philosophy helps answer the questions of today,” says Bénédicte de Montlaur, Cultural Counselor at the French Embassy, describing a five-hour marathon reading of Alain Badiou’s Plato’s Republic that kicked off at 1 a.m. “It’s not disconnected from what we live now.”
And, the programming seemed to insist, libraries aren’t disconnected from contemporary life, either. Reminders of the outside world and its demands were everywhere: signs for citizenship and immigration resources, for instance, as well as promotions for workforce training courses and language conversation groups. These mingled with more creative endeavors—fiber arts workshops and a virtual bowling team. “We feel that there is a tangible need for an open, safe place, physical places,” Orsós says, “where [visitors] can feel safe and free.”
And maybe a little restless, in a good way. In a moment when so many queries can be resolved nearly instantaneously, the library became a place to sit—all night long—with ones that are heady and uncomfortable, and to grasp for answers.