Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Encountering Books on the Street

Freedom: A Confederacy of Books

Having an interest in the way that we treat books in society, I cannot help but notice the locations where books continue to show up.  So it is without much trouble and with little decoration that I managed to summon up my paltry photographic skills and snap a few neighborhood sightings. (Let me call them my eye candy).  These may not fulfill that skillful and curious spirit of back-of-car-window-book peeping, which some readers found audacious--and admittedly, it was among the more eccentric activities of my usual Sunday mornings.  But I trust you may all find these curiosities a welcome and more republican interest.  

For some time, I've noticed this box on a street corner in Hyde Park, conveniently located near the University of Chicago.  More accurately, it is sandwiched between the University Fitness Center (Ratner, which looks like a frigate set to slide out to sea with a duet of men named Ahab and Quiqueg aboard) and the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.  Presumably this location is a nexus of undergrads, graduates, post-graduate, meta-graduates, from the bubbly to the bewildered, in this unique cluster of educational institutions we have in Hyde Park.  Anyhow, it was only on a day that I was carrying a camera that I decided to take a closer peek and see what this "Free Books" box was all about.

I scoped it out. I circumnavigated it with precious skill and caution.  I called upon my Magellanesque skills to get the best views, even without the aid of a sextant!  You will notice the finely crafted paint jobs of book spines (oh, the majesty of decorative street-art and the symbolic spines of books: special note here--you can see a grossly porcine tome in the middle titled "Infinite Jest," yet another tribute to the late Mr. David Foster Wallace.  I'm sure you can all semiotically imagine some vegan-bitten college student with Mt. Rainier-style progressivism stenciling and painting in their blues, reds, and chartreuses onto images of Kindles in 20 years, right?  I'm sure it will say "Free Kindles.")  

Okay.  Back to reality.  And back to the seriousness and importance of this discussion.  One of the things that has struck me about these observations is the thought of what it means for a book to be lost, or left, or abandoned.  What do these things mean?  Clearly these books are meant for others, to be shared with other readers, for pleasure, for interest, for edification. 
But what about books that (or is it "who?") are orphaned, abandoned, tossed to the nimble nothingness of an alley or a basement that floods?  There is a clear distinction, I believe, between books that are meant to be shared, as in this case, or with "Book Sharing" initiatives, like Book Crossing (see their site: and those which are not.  For now, let us look at how "shared" books like Book Crossing are given to the world.  They have a great little statement on their page:

Leave it on a park bench, a coffee shop, at a hotel on vacation. Share it with a friend or tuck it onto a bookshelf at the gym -- anywhere it might find a new reader! What happens next is up to fate, and we never know where our books might travel. Track the book's journey around the world as it is passed on from person to person.

But this points out something so true: the idea of the fate of books.  Traveling books, migrating books, itinerant books, nomadic books, book flaneury!  The idea of the book in motion is rather fascinating, and something I could surely dedicate several hours cultivating a plot of a bloggish garden.  But I will resume to this day's travels for now.

The two books above didn't suit my interest or tastes.  Fuzzy Thinking was the title of the book in the foreground.  Even if that does describe my quotidian efforts to cogitate, I left it alone.  I suppose I'm expert enough on this branch of esoteric knowledge.

An Orphan on the Street: Go Diego! Go!

I had been ruminating about this idea of books being left, abandoned, orphaned.  As I was riding my bike this same day, something caught my eye: in fact, doesn't everything seem to catch my eye? Why doesn't it "hook" my eye, or "hijack" my eye, or "ingratiate" my eye?  "Catch" my eye.  What is it with idiomatic English?  Nonetheless, something penetrated my eye as I zipped mellifluously along on my bike.  So I slowed down and turned back toward the object.  Low and behold, it was Diego--as in "Dora and Diego" of contemporary childhood legend and lore.  Both Dora (the Explorer) and Diego (also an Explorer) are the prime cool-n-cute characters of television and children's books (even musicals!), who promote the ever intercultural modernity of racial complexity and make our kids feel good, and right, an more than whatever Garrison Keillor tells us "above average" means.

But far from the home-cooked rhubarb and strawberry pies of Lake Wobegon and the bellies of factory workers, whose mute Scandinavian-cum-Minnesotan sensitivities, they fill...the calm love bestowed upon this Diego book is nowhere to be found.  It was not left for someone else to pick up, "adopt," and read.  No, it was left, like a ketchup-spoiled napkin or a free-range grass clipping, or even a sub-tabular booger slowly hardening around its doughy adhesion.  My heart goes out to you, Diego: you are not a doughy booger (a word which has no known mono-termed synonym), but must be valued as an important object of our society!  Unfortunately, this poor copy of Prairie Dog Rescue was likely washed away by the rains, pissed on by dogs, and run over by a rusted umber Coupe DeVille.  We can continue to think about, talk about, speculate on the merits and roles of the verbs we choose to examine here: left, abandoned, orphaned.  Each of these words and their inherent actions has a place in our society, and purports something.  Very likely, most people wouldn't have thought twice about stopping to look at this Diego book; they wouldn't have said "poor book, poor Diego--he looks like he's in bad shape...probably might even need a chiropractor."  They'd walk along, ignore the ignored, the abandoned, the marginalized, like a leper (don't touch it, it's contagious), like a street hawker, like your mothers-in-law.  Okay, let's not get carried away.  We can touch the lepers and speak to the hawkers.

I've Heard of "Tech Support" but "Book Support?"

Now when we want to emote about books, especially when we see them being "abused" or "used" in a certain way, let us think about the energy it takes to emote about books.  In the user studies I've conducted over the years about books and how people describe their visceral reactions to books being damaged or used "improperly," I've found both physical and moral repugnance as two of the greatest examples of emotive energies expended through the reactive process.  "Sad" or "Sick" or "Angry."  These are words from the vocative membranes of students and faculty about books "being in the wrong place."  It's a case of Mary Douglas and Purity and Danger applied concretely and exactingly on books.  Dirt in your garden is good and normal; dirt on your eggs benedict is bad, vexing, abnormal, primitive, incongruous, and flat out gross.  And it's likely to give you the runs and/or amoebic dysentery.  But why talk about all this?  The photo above conveys another sense of symbolic power of what place means--more accurately, "place," "in place," and "out of place."  Of course, we all see the massive phone books supporting this air conditioning unit.  My feeling about this is that "I have no feelings" about phone books being used.  Why?  Aren't I a sentient sentimentalist about all book-objects?  Phone books are informational lists.  Somehow that devalues the visceral apprehension and reactivity I might hold.  Though, admittedly, when the rains came, I felt biblio-birthing pangs that were reacting to the water damage of the books, even though I wasn't tremendously hurt by seeing this.  But there are two other books on top of the phone books, hidden from view.  What are they?  What made this person put "those" books there?  Why were they orphaned?  Or, should the word be "sacrificed!?"

More Books Abandoned to the World

Coming close to our conclusion, I want to offer you a vision of some more books that were left to the world.  At left is the sale book shelf at the JKM Library in Chicago.  Usually, it is full of books, but as it is summer, the pickings are slim; the donations are slimmer, ergo this is what we have.  There are some fine tomes here, but very few people around, and fewer people interested in specific titles means that these books are ultimately doomed to the dumpsters.  My colleague occasionally determines when it is time, usually when frustrations are high, and we (or more often "he") go off and have a book-tossing party.  I am not completely fond of this game or exercise.  When I first experienced it, as a book-tossing-virgin, I was horrified, frozen, unable to perform my duties.  "How could grown-ups do this!?"  I thought.  After a while, it became easier, especially when a good portion of the texts are trash-worthy.  But still, there are those titles worth least this month, I sighted some Moliere, Shakespeare, and a harbor-load of Teilhard de Chardin.

This last image brings us to a confluence of places.  These books were abandoned, even sacrificed to the streets.  They were tossed near a dumpster, presumably by some ill-prepared University of Chicago students; ill-prepared to carry their books to their next place of residence. (You can tell by the political philosophy tracts, that their provenance was nearby!)  In the rush to move after graduation, students just toss their books.  But here is where the story gets eye-numbingly interesting: my children's baby-sitter collected them--scores of them, from economic and calculus textbooks, to political philosophy, to Micheneriana (see in this bag is a typical anvil size volume of Michener).  Then she brought them into her basement.  Then she said "do you want them for your library."  I agreed.  And each day I would burrow into her dark, damp, and mildew-fluorescent basement, and retrieve these innumerable tomes.  Then I brought them to work to the sale shelf.  In this last batch, I began to put them on the shelves.  They were curious, interesting, and worthy titles.  But something was out of place (nothing to do with Edward Said), something wasn't quite right.  My hands began to melt like some surrealist painting, and I smelt the aromatic scents of clove and eucalyptus.  Then I realized, the bag that the babysitter had put these abandoned books in was slathered with a Rangoon-style perfumed petroleum jelly!--something I'd imagine the home library of political dissident Aung San Suu Kyi might smell like.  I dropped the books.  They barely left my hands, because the jelly was so thick.  I retreated like some Zaporizhian Cossack into the woods, tossing this bag into a stairwell.  And I found a washroom to cleanse my hands of the offending substance.

Of course, well-lubricated these books were.  But that does nothing for them now.  Nor me.  No wonder orphans get a bad rap.  But this is like foster care gone awry.  I'll still think of Diego off-gassing on the street under sun, sky, and micturations; and maybe give a passing glance at those phone books when I pass them on the way to work.  But no more than that.  I suppose the moral of today's story is: keep your eyes open for books around you, and watch out for unwanted lubrications.  I know I certainly will.


  1. Thanks for your very interesting comments.

    I use to work in a library and can't tell you how many times books would be returned that were so dirty that they were really dangerous to handle! Totally disgusting. I used paper towels and windex or anti-bacterial spray to clean them!

  2. I really enjoy reading your blog!!

    I am a collector of old phonebooks -- they really provide lots of information. May I suggest that you might want to
    give more than a passing glance at them when you pass them on the way to work!

  3. That 'free book' box was last thing I needed to know about, thank goodness I have to walk the other way to work! I have a good quote about phonebooks, but I'm not going to send it because it is too "shale-like" and hard to climb! The point for those who can figure out vernacular Brit talk is that they are the handiest item to have of all in the kitchen.

  4. Thanks for the entertaining blog.

    The following is from the movie The Jerk about phonebooks:

    Navin R. Johnson: The new phone book's here! The new phone book's here!

    Harry Hartounian: Boy, I wish I could get that excited about nothing.

    Navin R. Johnson: Nothing? Are you kidding? Page 73 - Johnson, Navin R.! I'm somebody now! Millions of people look at this book everyday! This is the kind of spontaneous publicity - your name in print - that makes people. I'm in print! Things are going to start happening to me now.

  5. That FREE book box is a great idea. There should be more out there for those little orphans.

  6. Thanks for all your comments!