Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Laundry Room Libraries

Great article in today’s The New York Times. Writer Susan Dominus talks about “saving the planet and expanding the mind.” How, you might ask? Her neighbors in Washington Heights piled all of their used books in the common laundry room in the basement where others might have a crack at them.

“At my former home…I read the narrative of some unidentified young couple through the titles that accumulated in our makeshift laundry room library,” she writes. “First The Fertility Diet, then several months later, What To Expect When You’re Expecting, and finally a slew of baby-naming books…A glance through the laundry room stacks provides a point of entry into lives that sometimes seem opaque, for all proximity.”

Dominus goes on to say that “Originally just a pile of books like those in so many other building basements, the library became a library about six years ago, when a superintendent put in some shelves.”

I marveled at this ad hoc common person’s library. I lived in an apartment for almost eighteen years; never saw a book in our laundry room, however, the manager did horde all the cast-off furniture, regardless of value, every time a tenant moved out.

At my school last year, a parent donated a grocery bag stuffed with thrillers, mysteries, and detective fiction. I do not spend much time in the faculty room, so it took a few months before I noticed the bag in the corner. The generous student was one of mine, and he asked me why the books were thrown in the corner of the faculty room. “Couldn’t we put them in the library?” he asked. Evidently, that is where the family thought they would be going. “Since the library does not want them,” he said, “why don’t we put them in the classroom shelves?”

Good idea! So there they are, along with other books I have collected, purchased, found over the years. Only a few students take advantage, however, and I wonder why.

It seems my students only want to borrow books when they need them for class. “Mr. Martin, do you have any extra copies of Hamlet? Sure kid. It’s on the shelf. They are reluctant to buy unless we will use the book for several weeks running. Some do check them out of the public or school library. Last year, I was asked if they could download the book on their iPhones. A larger number are lucky enough to have parents who take them regularly to the local chain book store.

I think the laundry room library is a good thing, but I like to buy fresh copies of my books. I love cracking one open, highlighting text, marking up the margins. If the book is rare or difficult to find, I refrain from marking and use post-it notes. Having grown up in the public library near my childhood home, now that I can, I buy fresh from the store whenever possible.

I also wonder about the culture of a laundry room library. It seems people in other cities value books more. Every time it comes up here in Los Angeles, someone always reminds me that we do have a book culture, as evidenced by the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA every April. Yeah, I guess that counts for something. Still, in other cities, people read on the subway to and from work. They read in the parks at break, on lunch hour, or on Sunday afternoons. New York has news stands on corners throughout Manhattan. In L.A. books are important for movie sales. It is more important to be seen reading, I think, then it is to read. And the last time I was in a Border’s several weeks ago, I was appalled at the collection of freaks and weirdoes inhabiting the aisles. Some were speaking aloud to themselves, others were singing, rehearsing scripts, acting out. One guy was dressed in a shabby tuxedo with a top hat and cane, I kid you not. Most of them were reading books and magazines only to throw them on the floor or back onto any random shelf. Then some serious buyer can come along and pay full price for a used book.

No, Los Angeles has a way to go before we start setting up lending libraries down in the laundry room. It’s too bad. I think we’re missing something.


  1. We are spoiled. If we were deprived of books somehow we'd have a different respect for them, I'm sure.

    I find those bulk stores that sell books, any books by the kilo the most offensive things imaginable. As if books are mere decoration like the stories you hear of people setting up books in book shelves purely for decorative purposes in order to sell houses.

    It's a sad indictment on all the love sweat and tears that go into most books.

    I imagine if we were only able to have access to one or two books and no other access to the printed word we'd probably rote learn every word of our book.

    But that's just a fantasy. Forgive me.
    I love the idea of the laundry library.

  2. Here in Los Angeles, and I am sure in other places as well, there are companies that sell books by the shelf yard for movie sets. So all those law books on the tv cop and lawyer shows were purchased for their visual value rather than for realism. You simply call the company up and tell them how much shelf space you need to fill up. Presto! Instant library. I heard that is how Michael Jackson furnished his "library" at that vulgar estate he called "Neverland" up near Santa Barbara.

    The final part of your comment reminds of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, a book I teach nearly every year. Books are banned and burned, so the ones who value them memorize them before they are destroyed so that at some point in the future, they can re-create them from memory. It is a great, heartbreaking, prophetic piece of science fiction from a master writer, should you ever want to read it.

    Thanks for your comment, Elisabeth.

  3. I love the laundry room library idea! It would definitely appeal to those that value books. The senior community where my mother lives (it definitely isn’t an ‘old folks’ home’) has a nice library and I always take pleasure in seeing what books people have donated. I’ve been known to take many of the older books off the shelf and look at the first couple of pages to see if anyone has written in them.

    Regarding books for movie sets, I find myself scanning book titles (if possible) in TV shows or movies—sometimes books are displayed for a reason or (more often) a sly joke.

    And regarding committing books to memory, that reminded me of the Athenian survivors of the Sicilian disaster—those who could recite Euripides were given special treatment and were the only ones to escape since the Syracusians were wild about the playwright (according to Plutarch).

  4. Nowadays, reciting Euripides on the street will get you a good beating, I would bet. Although the musician Sting tells a story about fending off a drunken lout one cold dark night by reciting a Shakespeare sonnet into his face. I guess it so confused the drunk that he thought Sting was crazy and ran away from him.

    And I take heart in this: today while teaching Hamlet to my senior class, one asked if he could memorize the famous soliloquy and recite it for the class next week. So I guess memorizing poetry and prose, at least for some, is still fashionable.

    Thanks for the comment, Chrees.

  5. I don't know about laundry libraries but we had a little underground urban library once in the Porter Square subway station. The idea was if you take a book to read, you were to either return it to the shelves or donate one in its place. I once emptied three bags full of paperback "already-reads" there in the morning on my way to work. When I returned a few hours later they were all--every single one of them--gone. The shelves were almost empty. As if a swarm of bees had swept in and carried them off, simply because they were free. But I like to think they all found new homes and continued being passed forward. Who knows. It was a neat idea, though: Take and read and pass it on.

  6. Awyn, thank you for the comment. There is a movie from several years ago where John Cusack plays a man who meets his soulmate in a chance encounter in New York City. They wish to see if fate really meant for them to be together, so they devise a number of tests. One was for her to write her name and phone number in a copy of Garcia Marquez's Love In The Time Of Cholera. She then sold it to a used book store. If he finds the book, they were meant to be together. Convoluted, but interesting. The name of the movie is Serendipity. It is a cute holiday-type movie if you can rent it. The story reminds me of your entry.

    Anyhow, thanks for writing,


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