Serendipity and the Little Free Library

by Tim Wynne-JonesP1040435

It seems a paradox to me that in an age where one can, ostensibly, find any book one can think of – can even download it instantaneously onto an eReader — bookstores are going out of business daily, and libraries have to scrabble for funds and are increasingly regarded as information centers rather than book repositories. Oh, the logic is clear enough: who needs a bookstore or a library when neither of those institutions have all the books. But there is something so insubstantial about this virtual library; something a whole lot less sensual about “browsing” on Amazon as opposed to really browsing. So how wonderful it would be to stumble across a real library right on your own street, where there wasn’t one yesterday!

The Little Free Library movement is all about books that are really there and free for the borrowing.

Here’s one I ran across on a recent visit to Toronto. Instead of all the books known to humankind this one featured about ten books, when I was there, and I have to think that in some ways, in this regard, less is more – more human, more materially satisfying in the sense of opening a little real door and taking out a real book to hold in your real hands. Yes!

The idea is not new. There are other websites dedicated to this proposal: see, for instance:

Also, The Guardian has their great autumnal book swap. Last year in London, I remember, finding seemingly orphaned books just sitting on train cars and other public places with a little card inside signed by the swapper and with the invitation to the swappee to hand the book along, when you’re done with it. Lovely.

This isn’t about having anything you want, it’s about serendipity.

Books and serendipity have always shared a happy relationship for me. There are any number of reading friends, reviewers and advertisements telling me about books they know I am going to love, but I’m far more inclined to want to read a book that falls in my path. There is this mysterious sense of the gods at work, or maybe just the literary gremlins. My favorite example of this was on a ferry crossing from mainland New Brunswick to Grand Manan Island, several years ago. I was on a school reading tour and of course had brought along books to read in the lonely nights spent in B& Bs or (sometimes) tatty motels. I was in the middle of one – a book I mean, not a tatty motel — when I spied out of the corner of my eye a book lying on a table in the ferry’s cafeteria. There was no one around. It was Josephine Tey’s The Singing Sands. “A young man is found dead on the night train to London.” Say no more! I’m sold. Tey died young and didn’t write many books. I had, in fact, read all of her output except for The Singing Sands. I waited and watched, assuming a passenger would suddenly remember he or she had left the book there and come to retrieve it. It was an old Penguin paperback addition. It was calling to me! But not until everyone was disembarking, did I run back to claim it. I put aside what I was reading, that evening, and launched into my serendipitous find. There are all sorts of ways in which one’s reading habit can be sweetened, but perhaps none so sweet as the book that sits waiting for you to find it.


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7 responses to “Serendipity and the Little Free Library

  1. Shannon Morgan

    This reminds me of the small-but-unique libraries I’ve come across while backpacking. A lot of the English-language offerings are quick reads by Michael Crichton, James Patterson, etc, but once in a while I’d discover a different, meatier voice. In New Zealand, I found Keri Hulme’s THE BONE PEOPLE in a mountain hut; if not for the person who left it there — the ranger? a fellow traveler? the author? 🙂 — I might never have encountered those characters.

  2. I love to have a small selection to choose from such as picking out a novel from the shelf at the inn we frequent on Bald Head Island off the coast of North Carolina. Usually I find something fun that I would never select if I had more choices!

  3. Such a great idea! Sarah Ellis wrote earlier on this blog about her own contribution to the Little Free Library movement:
    Then there’s Bookcrossing: which urges us to set books free and release them “into the wild” and follow their travels.

  4. Not to self: remember to read “Write at Your Own Risk” more regularly!!! Thanks, Uma for updating me. And of course Sarah would have discovered this — wunderlibrarian that she is.

  5. I heard an interview with JJ Adams yesterday in which he talked about how the idea for his new book, S, came from just this same kind of serendipity. He found a book that was left deliberately, in a similar fashion to the Guardian book project. The book was filled with marginalia. He thought he would read the book and the marginalia, write in his own responses and then return the book to where he found it to see if a marginalia conversation might ensue. In the end he kept it (because he loved the book) and the imagined conversation formed the basis for S.
    On another note, S is apparently driving librarians crazy because it contains a lot of detritus and loose materials that keep falling out. It is serendipitous as to where you will be in the book when you come across one of the loose bits. Interacting with the book becomes a constant stream of serendipitous events.

  6. Tim, I loved pondering the look of these little book-homes. They remind me of Thai spirit houses, and it was fun to imagine the feelings of a stray spirit coming upon such an abode and slipping inside to find….

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