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. http://littlefreelibrary.org/
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: http://imaginationforpeople.org/en/project/bookcrossing/
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.