Friday, May 9, 2014

Rhetorical Devices for NYPL Trustees

Dear Dr. Marx and trustees of the New York Public Library,

I was so pleased to learn of your decision to scrap the Central Library Plan, the proposed renovation that would have gutted the main branch of the research library. I was surprised and dismayed to learn, however, that the stacks will be left in place simply as architectural support for the reading rooms, with the books that were removed to storage sites under Bryant Park and across the river in New Jersey remaining where they are, in part because the removal was done so hastily that things are now badly out of order and there is no inventory of what is where and what items have been damaged in transit.

This — "kafkaesque," in the words of David Levering Lewis — preservation of the stacks but not the books was not what any of us who were agitating against the CLP were working towards, and I think I understand the problem. Please allow me to explain the rhetorical devices at play in the slogan "save our stacks" that appear to have created this confusion, in the hopes that a clearer, plainer communication of the issues at stake will lead to a quick resolution and a restoration of the books to the library:

Image via @saveNYPL

1) Synecdoche is a rhetorical device that names an object or an idea with its most salient component.

Example one: On a tour of a pharmaceutical company, the tour guide might point to the laboratory and say "the brains are in here." He would, of course, be referring to the scientists, identifying them by their most salient and relevant part. (There's a slight chance that there might actually also be some disembodied brains in there, depending on what is being studied in a particular laboratory, but that's neither here nor there.)

Example two: A whole coterie of award-winning and world-renowned writers and artists might, in the face of a destructive plan to renovate a world-class research library, might rally around the cry: Save our stacks! In this case, they are using the word stacks as a small component to refer to the entirety of the library, including its books and archives.

2) Metonymy is a rhetorical device that substitutes the name of an idea with an object or concept that is closely associated with or representative of it.

Example one: The phrase 'the pen is mightier than the sword' does not literally suggest that a person could succeed in jousting, fencing or hand-to-hand knife combat by arming himself with a fountain pen, ball-point, gelly roll, or Sharpie. Rather, it uses those concrete items to indicate larger concepts, in this case espousing the belief that ideas and speech will always ultimately win out over violence.

Example two: Imagine a wide range of researchers in the humanities and social sciences, some of whom are affiliated with universities and some of whom are not, using the phrase "Save our stacks!" as a watchword to guard agains the destruction of a world-class research collection that is freely open to all, regardless of whether or not they hold a university appointment. In this case, the word stacks in their slogan refers to all the knowledge, actual and potential, facilitated by the full function of those stacks as housing for the research collection of books and other archival materials.

I hope that this clears up the confusion. There may be some books about this topic over in New Jersey that you can read if you need further clarification. And if you can find them.

Love and literal-mindedness,

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