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.