Reading is Lit! A Year with Little Free Libraries

little free library by steps to large library and music hall in Homestead, PA
Little free library outside big free library, Homestead

Patrick Kenzie is tough private investigator from the mean streets of south Boston. He drinks too much, isn’t afraid to take a punch to the nose, and grew up with a “hero” fire fighter for a father who liked to knock him and his mother around.

Kensie and his partner have taken a case from some back room-dealing politicians that will lead them from fancy downtown Boston to cop bars, rundown mill towns, and burned-out ganglands in an action/suspense-filled journey that, you guessed it, will see more twists and turns than a shore-leave midshipman with a stack of dollar bills in his pocket.

little free library painted blue and red with large circular window holes
Designy little free library, Octopus Garden, Friendship
little free library with door made from mosaic glass
Blue hour/glass mosaic little free library, Pittsburgh Glass Center, Garfield

Shakespeare, it ain’t. Dennis Lehane’s A Drink Before the War (1994) is full of clichés and develops its characters just enough for us to not really care about them. But its brutal honesty about the way race and class color greater Boston’s poorer boroughs was an impressive subtext to this otherwise standard-issue genre story.

Despite its dubious literary merits, the book was a completely enjoyable—if, I’m sure, ultimately forgettable—potboiler that read just fine with one’s feet up by the fire on a weekend retreat to the Laurel Highlands. Inside the paperback’s front cover, an after-market rubber stamp informs readers This book visited the Fisk Street Little Free Library.[1]

little free library attached to tree in residential neighborhood
Little free library and NARCAN dispensary, Highland Park
little free library in front of retail storefront
Little free library with Fred Rogers tribute and festive gourd, Garfield

At this time last year we were all neck-deep into coronavirus lockdown, mach I.[2] If you’ll recall, the entire Carnegie Library system was inaccessible for some time. When it opened again, it was with a phased approach that first included a strict no-browsing/request books online/contact-free pickup approach.

That all makes perfect sense and your author applauds everyone at CLP for everything they did to make the full catalog available as soon as possible … but it’s just not the same. One wants to go into the library, poke around, allow the displays of new titles and seasonal picks to catch the eye, let some kismet have a chance to drop something unexpected into our hands and inject it into the brain.

little free library in alley behind row houses
Back alley little free library, Lawrenceville
little free library made from former cabinets resting on cinderblocks
Up-on-blocks little free library, Lawrenceville

It was under these circumstances that the now-omnipresent little free libraries (LFLs) really started to make sense. I had seen them all over—everyone has seen them all over, they’re everywhere!—but never gave the libraries much time or deep catalog consideration.

And then suddenly, these same little free libraries were the only libraries available. At some point in 2020, this blogger found himself poking more, bringing a few titles home, and contributing already-consumed books to replace the ones borrowed.

As a new year’s resolution (for 2021), I decided to dedicate the year’s book-reading entirely to items found randomly at whatever little free libraries I happened to stumble upon.

little free library in front of small apartment building
Professional-grade little free library, Lawrenceville
little free library on decoupage'd pole
Party-on-the-pole, business-in-the-penthouse little free library, Friendship

The year started with bang—or maybe with dessert. The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King (2012) is Rich Cohen’s amazing history of how Sam Zemurray, a Russian immigrant to the American South, hussled his way into becoming the don of big fruit and transformed (physically, agriculturally, and politically) much of Central America in the process. This includes, among other things, inciting a war in Honduras.

Zemurray is an amazing (true life) character, but the history of how bananas came to, and took over, America (at least, where fruit is concerned) is truly riveting. I went from thinking of bananas as a pleasant enough year-round option for my morning yogurt to imagining them the way visitors to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair or immigrants arriving at Ellis Island first experienced them. Recommended … although I don’t think it’s still available at the 37th Street LFL where I both checked it out and returned it.

little free library with umbrella attached
Umbrella’d little free pantry, Lawrenceville
little free library painted with flower scene
Flowers in the snow little free library, Waldorf School, Bloomfield

If you could hang with A Visit from the Goon Squad‘s non-traditional narrative, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (2012) took the same unorthodox approach on the page, but wrapped it in an engrossing—and legit laugh-out-loud—tragi-comic skewering of modern tech yuppies slash pull-at-your-heartstrings family drama. Yes, it’s “now a major motion picture,” but trust me: read the book; skip the movie.

Harold Robbins’ The Betsy (1971) marries the ambitious world of automotive innovation with enough male fantasy soft-core sleaze to keep the motor running and the pages turning. Robbins’, it turns out, is still the highest-selling American author of all time[3]—a fact that’s hard to believe. Read The Betsy and the reality that those superlatives rarely match artistic merit is made all too clear, but this reader has no regrets.

little free library located by public steps
Only-accessible-by-steps little free library, Fineview [tip: Laura Zurowski]
little free library hand painted with sky and clouds
Painted sky little free library, Polish Hill

In-between, there was some British detective novel; one from Oprah’s Book Club; a suspense novel set in Weimar Berlin with a plot about ex-pats attempting to locate the last heir to the Romanov dynasty—I should have kept a list.

But this isn’t a book review site or even a book review post. Today, we’re just trying to appreciate the loving acts of community that are the creation of little free libraries … and little free pantries, community resource centers, art galleries, and everything else people offer up as gifts to their neighbors, visitors, and random passers-by.

inside free little art gallery with donated paintings, illustrations, and photographs
Getting all meta at the free little art gallery, Sharpsburg
little free library painted purple and green
Welcome to the ’80s little free library, Harmony

If you host a little free somethingorother, hats off to you [side note: we’d love to hear about the experience]; if you “check out” materials provided from them, hopefully they’ve brightened your days. They have mine—so much so that we’re installing one at Chez Orbit. More about that later.

Until then, keep (or start!) reading, visit your neighborhood little free library, and have a happy new year.

little free library painted black and white
Two-tone little free library, Polish Hill
tall and thin little free library with square windows in door
Phone box-style little free library, Verona
little free library painted aqua blue
The books aquatic little free library, Bloomfield
little free library with graffiti tag on front
Graffiti’d-upon little free library, Lawrenceville
little free library with cut-out hearts in windows
Little free library love, East Liberty
little free library with tar shingles on roof
Shingled little free library, Bellevue

[1] The history of where the books in little free libraries have been, and where they came from, would be really interesting. We encourage other LFL stewards to do something similar.

[2] The actual timeline is so foggy at this point, CLP may well have been fully open by January, 2021. Regardless, the experience of being without full access to the library during the first part of the pandemic was very real.

[3] Apparently this distinction is a toss-up between Robbins and Danielle Steele, so Robbins may be second on the list. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_fiction_authors

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