Every morning I walk by two Little Free Libraries, sometimes more, depending on which way I go to the Metro. I love these tiny book cabinets as much for what they look like as for what’s inside them. Each has its own personality, both inside and out, and it is always a little thrill to pop them open and see what wild mix of giveaways awaits me: Norman Mailer mingling with Jacqueline Susann; Danielle Steel leaning beside a book of psalms; the “Communist Manifesto” hanging out with “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”
The idea for the Little Free Library came from Todd Bol, who built his streetside book cabinet in 2009 as “a spiritual gesture” to his late mother, a schoolteacher. Bol died Oct. 18. There are now 75,000 book exchanges in the Little Free Library nonprofit group he created. “I put up my library and noticed my neighbors talking to it like it was a little puppy,” Bol once noted. “And I realized there was some kind of magic about it.”
I understand that magic. For months I have been taking pictures of the Little Free Libraries on my path — to see what’s new, what’s been taken, what’s been languishing (a copy of Colleen McCullough’s “Fortune’s Favorites” just would not disappear from the Library on my corner).
The organization’s motto is “Take a Book, Leave a Book.” And though I have a stash of books in the back of our car waiting for that rainy-day project in which my kids and I drop a handful of books in every Little Free Library we pass, I confess I probably take more than I give. How could I pass up a tattered copy of “Wordly Wise,” the vocabulary book of my youth, or a yellowed copy of “Shiloh,” which my 11-year-old son was reading at school? My 9-year-old daughter once grabbed a copy of “Clutter Control,” which begged to be returned — and was.
Yesterday, after reading of Bol’s death, my daughter and I tied a white ribbon around the knob on the Little Free Library on our corner, a gesture suggested by Bol’s organization. Among the books inside was Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” On my walk home, I saw a construction worker who had grabbed the book after his shift and was reading it on the grass next to the book cabinet. “I heard it was good,” he told me.
Some have criticized the Little Free Libraries as being concentrated in affluent, arrogantly literary neighborhoods “driven more so by the desire to showcase one’s passion for books and education than a genuine desire to help the community in a meaningful way.” There might be a grain of truth in that cynical remark. But I prefer to think of Little Free Libraries as demonstrating the title of a book I recently saw inside one: “The Brighter Side of Human Nature.”
Nora Krug is an editor and writer at Book World.