I went to the library the other day but it was out of books. Can you believe it? I know the cuts have hit hard but really, what's the point of a library if there's nothing to borrow?
This, however, was no ordinary library. It was lending something even richer, more complex, more multi-layered and varied than your average Dostoyevsky or JK Rowling. It was lending people.
This was a human library and it was part of the Empathy Museum, a 'travelling experiential adventure space for stepping into the shoes of others and looking at the world through their eyes'. The event was in the Whitechapel Gallery and was part of Refashion East, another imaginative series of workshops, walks and popups produced by the good people at Hubbub.
Refashion East was celebrating the creative art of prolonging the life of our clothes, nicely framed in the context of Aldgate's rag trade and textile history. Adding to the theme, the Empathy Museum had curated an assortment of 'living books' offering their individual perspective of the fashion industry, from designers, models and buyers to tailors, consumers and feminist entrepreneurs.
This is how it worked. You had half an hour to 'borrow' three books and understand the world from their point of view. I spoke to a fresh-faced buyer grappling with the knowledge of a supply chain buttressed by sweatshops; a tailor who, as a boy, would chop suits up to learn how they were put together; and an ex-model who had discovered even high street shops with a conscience graded their shop staff according to their looks.
Our conversations were peppered with enticing glimpses of worlds beyond my own, not only backstage insight into an industry I know little about, but flashes of the inner life of strangers - their personal and professional dilemmas, tensions, motivations, memories and loves.
Half an hour wasn't enough - it left one hungry to hear more, not only from my three choices but the other living books too. One thing that struck me once the session was in full swing and the room resounded with chatter was the sheer variety of people involved in or affected by the business of selling clothes, from the makers and creators, the wearers and consumers, the factory workers, window shoppers, journalists, agents, traders, manufacturers, executives, advertisers...
Thinking of the different roles, experiences and perspectives in the room somehow provided a single compressed vision of this enormously complex, multi-limbed organism - our clothes culture - that shapes our taste in and attitude towards and appetite for the garments that cover our bodies.
The Empathy Museum is an idea that grew out of a book written by philosopher Roman Knzaric. He believes that empathy - the ability to see the world from another's perspective - is an overlooked force for progressive social change, and that our contemporary hyper-individualistic vision of ourselves distorts the truth about our essential nature. Empathy, science is now discovering, is fundamental to our being - it is hardwired into our brain and the foundation of our social self. What's more, it's a skill we can cultivate.
The Empathy Museum launches properly in September 2015 and it will include many 'exhibits' to add to the human library, all designed to stimulate our empathic muscles. For those at Refashion East, borrowing a few humans for conversation was a great taster that opened up a window onto the fashion industry in a brilliantly original way. And who knows, maybe our empathy biceps got a little stronger in the process.