There are twenty-one libraries on my regular route.
These are not the libraries you’re perhaps picturing -- the kind with cards and hold shelves, the kind big enough to step into -- but Little Free Libraries, the miniature kind that seem to have sprouted across my city overnight. Powered by a national nonprofit, these tiny book exchanges operate under the broad maxim take a book, leave a book. While I frequented a few in my high school years, I’ve begun to expand my range during quarantine, venturing farther and farther away from my neighborhood in Berkeley, California, in search of a good read. As the months have worn on, I’ve found that -- like mushrooms, which are simply the fruiting bodies of vast fungal networks -- Little Libraries are simply a small window into the vast expanse of my city’s book consumption. While they may be small, they are a mighty tool of connection during disconnecting times -- and, similar to their large counterparts, they’ve allowed me to get to know my city in a whole new way.
At the beginning of quarantine, when the CDC’s guidelines on whether it was okay to touch -- well, anything -- were still vague, I mostly just looked at the Little Libraries. While occasionally deigning to open a tiny door with my sleeve and then quarantining each book for three days wasn’t much fun, I soon became as entranced as a young Darwin chasing after finches. For my city’s tiny book exchanges come in endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful: One is made from an old icebox, complete with its original swing latch. One is a converted dollhouse waterproofed using plexiglass and a plastic shower curtain. One has a roof shingled with colorful popsicle sticks and is proudly topped by a papier-mache pig with glitter-encrusted wings. One is a converted cupboard as tall as I am. One is double-decker, with a top compartment for books and a lower compartment for canned food donations. One is an exact replica of the house it fronts, down to the shade of the paint, the trim on the roof, and the Black Lives Matter banner hanging from the balcony. One is simply a large tupperware with “Free Books” sharpied on one side. They sit atop fenceposts, flank gardens, stand at the ends of driveways, and are held in place by all manner of materials: rope, concrete, hammock chains, zipties. They have their own tiny rooves and trellises; they have their own miniature astro-turf gardens; they have itty-bitty windows complete with their own itty-bitty curtains. Altogether, they form a counterpoint to my city: like a far more flamboyant cousin of mailboxes, or a network of apartments for fairies.
And they are, of course, filled with books.
A born bookworm, I’ve sorely missed in-person access to public libraries during the pandemic. While I’ve been lucky enough to have access outdoor pickup from the Berkeley Public Library system, I’ve also found that I miss the experience of browsing: the low hum of crowds, of spines stacked tight by subject and genre, of information contained in both the shelves of books and the conversations of people around you. Communication without communication. As a Little Library connoisseur, however, I’ve learned to browse in a whole new way.
Little Libraries have allowed me to read books that I never would have found at my beloved public libraries: locally published zines, entire runs of 1980’s comic books, authors I’d never heard of, and soppy YA I’d never dare to reserve on the holdshelf, just to name a few genres. I’ve also gotten my hands on hardcover bestsellers that would’ve collectively cost me weeks on the hold list or a significant chunk of my term-time research stipend. And even though few days yield a promising read, I’ve developed a special love for so-called “dead books”: the ancient, musty, often water-damaged paperbacks that never seem to get taken. I’ll return to the same library for weeks to be met with the sight of the same spines: The Yeast Connection? Better Living Through Spirulina? A copy of Hugh Howey’s Wool so waterlogged that it’s grown mildew black as print? Better luck next time, buddy, I’ll think, closing the tiny door on their broken spines. It may be a bizarre form of Stockholm syndrome, but Little Libraries have made me think every book is an interesting book -- even if I don’t want to take it home with me. In addition to amassing my own stacks of books to be read, I’ve also sent them across the country to my friends in Brooklyn, Cambridge, and Orange County. While my friends kept some of the books -- the breakout reads of 2020-21 have been Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnaviagted Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making and Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside, if you’re interested -- others they’ve returned to the even larger network of Little Libraries nationwide. Communication without communication: Little Libraries can contain so many worlds, for such mailbox-sized things.
There is, of course, no such thing as a free book. Over the course of quarantine, I’ve amassed a massive pile of books to be read: blotting out the surface of my nightstand, it threatened to collapse and kill me in my sleep. But Little Libraries are a perfect addiction, in that any excess indulgence contains the means of its own destruction. Take too many books? Simply leave them! After building up that tottering stack, I staged several massive book clean-outs, eventually ending up with less total books than I had at the beginning of quarantine. My overcrowded bookshelf, once double-stacked with tomes, finally has room to breathe. Returning, again and again, to these miniature book oases has allowed me to hone my decision-making skills as to what books are actually worth reading. Plugging into such a network can provide one with a Zen of book consumption: if you’re meant to find a book, it will find you. And if it doesn’t, you can still check it out from the public library.
My family has sometimes snickered at my singular focus on Little Libraries, which can only be described as obsession. But I’ve argued that Little Libraries are not just a distraction diverting us from our regular quests for groceries and takeout, but a chance to stand still and notice things: not just the cursive inscription on a copy of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs de Mal (to Frederick, dated 1947), but also a ruby-crowned kinglet hopping between the tines of a cactus, looking at you with one liquid eye. Little Libraries, regardless of their contents, force you to stop, and look, and listen. What else in quarantine has done the same?
Look at anything long enough, and it will start to seem strange. Attributing grand philosophical meaning to what are essentially boxes full of free books may simply be a symptom of my extended tenure at Zoom University. But while I may not range as far in search of Little Libraries when the world returns to something like normal, I think I will continue to view them as something rich and strange -- or at least as a network that nourished me, when most other lines of communication had changed platforms or gone dark.
Your city might not have the profusion of Little Libraries that Berkeley does, but you may be surprised -- search your zipcode at https://littlefreelibrary.org/ourmap/ to see what shows up. Harvard campus itself has several notable book exchanges: a Little Library just to the left of the Science Center’s revolving doors, the box of free comic books outside Stephanie Burt’s office, and over a dozen other Little Libraries in the 02138 zipcode. If you’ve yet to explore the Little Libraries in your area, I envy you. You’re Schrodinger, but the cat is always alive. So go ahead, open those tiny doors.
You never know what you might find.