Information Wants To Be Free

I wonder how many times I have walked past the silver display box at the corner of E. Gay and N. Pearl Sts. without noticing it.  The clusters of plastic display boxes at sidewalk intersections are legion in downtown Columbus–glossy pamphlet-sized publications advertising apartments for rent, magazine-size lists of cars and trucks for sale–that I think it’s understandable that I would not have seen it.

Until Wednesday, that is.  I was walking back to the William Green Building after lunch at Ringside, a small café in the alley behind the State Office Tower.  I was more observant than before, I suppose, when I saw the silver-painted box with the sign FREE BOOKS.
No clue as to how many of these are around Columbus, whether downtown or elsewhere.  This one is at the corner of E. Gay and N. Pearl Sts., just outside the ZenCha Tea Salon.

The books available consisted of many obscure titles, along with some slender Signet Classics and some theology books published by Catholic publishing houses.  The only book I took was John Updike’s Memories of the Ford Administration.  I came away thinking what a welcome change of pace this was from all the other free reading material offered downtown, such as the free “newspapers” which are little more than pages and pages of ads and bands’ self-promotion.

The title of this post comes from the credo of the Cyberpunk movement in computer hacking, hearkening back to the 1970s and 1980s, before computers were as ubiquitous as they are.  The mentality behind hacking was much more benign than the ugly turn it has taken in the last decade or so.  During the early hacking era, the purpose for hacking into a system was just to see if you could do it.  The hacker had no interest in stealing or altering data, other than leaving a caustic “I was here!” buried in a REM statement.

Whoever set up this box is going independent, because I have seen two or three Little Free Library boxes in the Clintonville area, working on the same principle.  (I am seriously considering setting one up in my front yard once spring comes and the weather is consistently warmer.)  Libraries are usually the first thing to fall to the budget axe in schools and city budgets–while politicians, parents, and school officials, in the same breath, wring their hands about the United States’ falling behind in math, science, and literacy compared to the rest of the world.

The public library has long been “the people’s university,” and now thoughtful and proactive people are taking the message local, and hitting the streets, much the way the more aggressive politicians and evangelists have done.  Instead of the library being behind walls and doors, it is going to the people, as accessible as any free newspaper or ad cluster.

Indeed, the free book box reminded me of my days in Cincinnati in the mid-1980s, when I was working as a typesetter and proofreader for Homefinder, a biweekly journal of real estate listings.  I would spend four to five days per week as a Burroughs operator, occasionally setting copy for The Woman CPA, and then see the finished product on a rack at Fifth Third Bank when I went there to cash my paycheck.

Before the idea of the Little Free Library came to anyone’s mind, I was taking advantage of several–intentional or not–precursors to it.  When I lived in the Boston area, bookstores were clustered over a four- or five-block radius in Cambridge, and when I was flush, I spent many a paycheck at them.  However, it did not take me long to notice that they did not keep all the books that people tried to sell to them, so I began to prowl the area around the Dumpsters, and there I found interesting (to me) books, all of them free and ripe for the picking.  I was able to build a small library piecemeal from these rejects–everything from classics to Peanuts to the outright lunatic (such as Hal Lindsey’s Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth) that I would never have bought.  When book-picking behind Shambhala Bookstore on JFK Blvd., sometimes I would recover books worthy of the blog I Read Odd Books, such as Aleister Crowley’s The Book of Lies or Leo Schaya’s The Universal Meaning of the Kabbalah.  (The bookstore mainly sold products published by Shambhala Publications.)  In a Crimson article I wrote about the bookstores of Harvard Square in 1984, I used the word “occult” to describe Shambhala’s wares, but now the word “occult” is one I try to avoid.  Occult simply means “unknown,” and algebra and basic chemistry fall under that classification for me.

In the 1970s, the public library in Marietta had a cart in the foyer by the circulation desk, a paperback exchange and giveaway.  This was my first exposure to books I buy and see for sale at PulpFest, such as Pocket Books editions of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason and D.A. series.  (The Perry Mason books can be subtitled The Chronicles of Hamilton Burger, America’s Most Incompetent Attorney.)  I also accumulated Dell paperbacks of Brett Halliday’s Mike Shayne series, and the mysteries of Mignon G. Eberhart (who inspired Agatha Christie to produce the Miss Marple novels–suspense mysteries featuring a strong heroine).  I even came away with a Bantam paperback romance or two written by Barbara Cartland.

One of the Little Free Library sites here in the Clintonville area is in front of the Clintonville Resource Center, a choice location.  The Resource Center features a food pantry, so they are doing the joint task of feeding minds as well as bodies.  When I needed to go there to stock our larder, there was a small assortment of books available for the taking.  I would often get a young teen book for Susie, and try to circumnavigate around the copies of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life to find more secular classics.

As with any donation-based service, your mileage will vary as to the findings at these venues.  The choices will be feast or famine.  Some people will donate books just to get them off their hands, such as the quickly read and -forgotten bodice ripper or Harlequin Romance, while others will seek to expose passersby to the classics and immortal works, and stock their boxes with paperback classics.

I have yet to begin reading my copy of Memories of the Ford Administration, but my copy will hold my interest, even if the text will not.  (I have only read The Witches of Eastwick and the four Rabbit Angstrom novels–that is the whole of my John Updike experience.)  The previous owner has underlined it, written comments and personal reflections in the margins, and so reading these may be as much fun as the actual novel itself.  (This could be like the 1929 pocket diary that I found in a Cambridge bookstore in 1982.  Written in pencil, the entries read like this: “Cloudy and cold.  I worked for Mrs. Bass.”  There was no name on the flyleaf, and no indication of where the diarist lived.  I eventually gave the little book to my dad, since he was born in 1929.  Dad said in a letter, “Thanks for the 1929 diary.  The poor guy really led an uneventful life!”)  The former owner of the Updike book wrote in ink, so this person wanted his/her observations to stand for all time.
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Time-Tested and -Honored Social Media

Several blog posts ago, I wrote about the SoHud Block Watch that my neighbors have organized in response to the graffiti, car break-ins, thefts, and vandalism occurring in our particular patch of Columbus the last several months.  Word of mouth worked well when the idea of a Block Watch first started to percolate, and this quickly progressed to closed groups on Yahoo!, Google Groups, and Facebook.

The latest meeting was last night at the Maynard Ave. United Methodist Church.  I was unable to be there in person, since I went to a parents’ meeting at The Charles School at Ohio Dominican University, where Susie began classes last Monday, but I was able to play a part before the meeting occurred.

With all the cyberspace methods of spreading news now available to just about anyone, the SoHud Block Watch decided to spread the news the old-fashioned way.  When I came home from work Monday, there was a stack of leaflets and a roll of Scotch tape in between the storm door and my front door.  The organizer had assigned me territory as to where to hang these.  So, the following night, I went out with the little stack of leaflets and the roll of tape, and began taping them to the doors of houses.  My territory was east of where Susie and I live, short blocks sandwiched by N. 4th St. to the west and the Norfolk Southern train tracks to the east.

I needed the exercise, and it was not as brutally cold as it has been the past several nights, although it was icy and I nearly fell several occasions.  (Grudgingly, I am coming to realize that I am coming to an age when a fall can have serious consequences.  So far, I have imitated the Weeble: I wobble, but I don’t fall down.)  I went up and down both sides of the block on Wyandotte Ave., E. Maynard, Chilcote, and Clinton, before I ran out of flyers.

One of the organizers of the Block Watch publicly complimented me on Facebook for a job well done, since several newcomers from the sections I canvassed appeared at the meeting.  While I was out in the night with my stack of flyers and the roll of tape, I felt a little like the town criers you see in children’s stories about the American Revolution.  (I remember seeing a flyer in a supermarket that was called Town Crier, and its logo was a guy in a tri-corner hat, ruffles, tights, and boots, ringing a bell, and from his wide open mouth was a voice balloon shouting, “Hear ye!  Hear ye!”)

My route was supposed to cover E. Tompkins as well, but I ran out of copies.  (Before I began distributing, I put two copies in my diary, so when those pages are studied by the historians of the future, there will be extant copies for all to see.)  Many flyers, whether for political candidates, bands, pro- or anti-abortion rallies, or store openings, usually end up in the trash within hours.  Sometimes, I have looked on eBay to see if anyone is selling original copies of the Hands Off Cuba! Fair Play for Cuba Committee leaflets that Lee Harvey Oswald distributed on the streets of New Orleans in the summer of 1963.  I have also looked to see if anyone has the original handbill for the Ford’s Theater performance of Our American Cousin for the April 1865 night when Lincoln was assassinated.

Wonder how many of these were discarded before Lincoln went to the theater that night?

In 1960, Richard Nixon, who was then Vice President, made a campaign stop in Marietta when he was running against John F. Kennedy for President.  My parents, who were quite enthusiastic Kennedy supporters, went to see Nixon speak in front of the National Guard Armory on Front St.  I have always been irritated by the fact that my dad eventually lost much of his ’60 Kennedy campaign memorabilia–his PT-109 tie bar, his Frank Sinatra campaign record (“High Hopes”), and his ALL THE WAY WITH JFK button, but he did manage to keep a little pamphlet called The White House–American or Roman?, by V.E. Howard.  It addressed the question of whether it was proper for a Roman Catholic to be President.  After reading two or three paragraphs, you can tell that the answer is a screeching “No!”  (I keep my copy inside the front cover of a 1922 book, The Suppressed Truth About the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, by Burke McCarty.  The “suppressed truth,” of course, was that the Vatican was behind Lincoln’s murder.)

When I arrived in Boston in 1982, I arrived pretty much broke, and was desperately searching for jobs that paid very soon after taking them.  Before I took my short-lived job as a dishwasher and busboy at a delicatessen in Brookline, I considered taking a job leafleting in Harvard Square.  These were small flyers for any business that paid to produce them, anything from shoe stores to tailors.  The pay was minimum wage, and it meant standing out in the weather and trying to press these into the hands of passersby who avoided you as much as they avoided the panhandlers, and also competing with people handing out other types of printed matter.  Women in hijabs timidly held out “paper against Khomeini,” and Scientologists badgered people about taking a “personality test.”  (I told one that I already took one, and it said I was obnoxious.)  Hare Krishnas endlessly tried to issue invitations to free vegetarian meals (I kept one of their brochures in my wallet, in case I ever needed a free meal), and Bridge Over Troubled Waters workers tried to get literature to runaways and kids living on the streets about their services.  I decided not to try to take this job, although the leafleting service would have hired anyone who could stay in one place and move one arm for eight hours.

I have searched eBay, so far in vain, for the WANTED FOR TREASON handbills that circulated in Dallas in November 1963, in the days before John Kennedy’s assassination.  These featured front and side photographs of Kennedy, and was styled like the posters that hung in post office lobbies.  Many Dallas-area Democrats (and Republicans who were not on the far end of the political and lunatic spectrum) probably declined them, and tossed them into the nearest trash can, but their value skyrocketed from the moment the news spread that Kennedy had been killed.

Political extremists, both Left and Right, still cling to the art of the leaflet.  As recently as my last few trips to Washington, for peace and anti-fracking marches, I have come home with “9/11 was an inside job” flyers, poorly printed and typeset descriptions of chemtrails and how they’re turning us all into zombies, and the evils of the Federal Reserve and the Trilateral Commission.

Evangelism learned the value of the flyer long ago.  Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, managed to condense his version of the New Testament into a short little work called The Four Spiritual Laws, which is short enough to be readable over a single cup of coffee and a sandwich.  And, there is Jack T. Chick, a Talibangelist who has published booklet-sized comic books to spread his own way-out-there version of the Gospel (along with other “little-known facts” such as that the Vatican was responsible for the Holocaust, that Dungeons and Dragons is a gateway drug for Satanic worship, etc.), and many of his tracts are given out at trick-or-treat (with or without razor blade-studded candy), left in Laundromats, or on buses and public restrooms.  One tract you won’t see much anymore is Lisa, which is beyond question his most grotesque.

I’ll make one brief segue before ending this entry.  I finally broke down and bought an external keyboard, since my keyboard has been DOA, when I tipped over a cup of milk on it.  The thought never occurred to me until this week, but tonight Susie and I went to Micro Center so she could buy a new power cord for her Acer laptop.  For a mere $4.05, I bought an Inland external keyboard.  It took less than 10 minutes to install, and now I am back in business.  It’s not as easy to use as the regular keyboard, but it is much better than trying to use the onscreen keyboard!