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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