The other day, I dropped off some books at the little library in the neighborhood. I came across it a few weeks ago: a two-shelf hutch set back from the sidewalk, on the edge of someone’s property, with a sign urging passers-by to take or leave a book.
I love these informal book sites, which seem to be popping up all over; a friend has one on her street. What they signify is one of the great benefits of reading: not to be alone so much as to become part of a community. It is a community of mind, of spirit, defined by the empathy literature demands. How do we read, after all, if we do not imagine ourselves into the hearts, the lives, the histories of those we read about, if we do not seek communion of a kind?
This is what it is about reading: It appears to be passive (we sit by ourselves and turn pages), but in reality it’s the other way around. I think of Aime Cesaire, who once wrote: “And most of all beware, even in thought, of assuming the sterile attitude of the spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of grief is not a proscenium, a man who wails is not a dancing bear.”
Here, in some sense, we have a reader’s manifesto, a call to remain engaged. What is the importance of stories? Not that they separate us, but that they draw us closer in.
I’ve been considering that a lot this week, these notions of engagement, of community. I’ve been considering what we mean to one another, the importance of small acts of mercy, of generosity, the necessity of love. What do we have, after all, except our points of intersection, however insignificant they may seem?
This is why the little library in the neighborhood captivates me, because it suggests that the apparently minor act of dropping off a book or picking up a book is highly meaningful, a way of staying in touch. That we do this indirectly, with strangers even, only makes the whole thing more resonant. It’s an echo of the interaction between reader and writer — what E.L. Doctorow once characterized as “writing in silence, reading in silence” — in which two minds in isolation somehow come together, creating a common space.
Last week, when I was in Boston, my son told me about a play he was going to see called “Columbinus,” inspired by the Columbine High School massacre. I gave him a copy of Dave Cullen’s magnificent “Columbine,” a book that left me with an unexpected (and discomforting) feeling of compassion for Dylan Klebold, one of the two killers, a depressed kid who, in the end, is much more terrifying and tragic because he is never portrayed as anything less than a human being.
I don’t mean to excuse Klebold, or to say he wasn’t responsible. He killed several people, including himself, and behaved with a shocking lack of empathy. But was he a monster, or a person who did monstrous things? In our sanctimonious culture, the temptation is to label him the former, but I’d suggest the latter is more useful, if only because it reminds us that we are all in everything together — which we need not only to recognize but also to act upon.
In that sense, these little libraries represent, for me, a gesture of faith, a way of doing community, of taking down some of the barriers that divide us, if only through the metaphorical filter of books. If we read to empathize, then literature is an art of sharing, which is what these libraries are about.
The shelves were bare when I arrived at the little library in the neighborhood; I restocked them as best I could. Next time, I’ll drive so I can bring more books … and, perhaps, take a couple in return.
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