Reading

Elegy for a Little Free Library

When my husband and I first moved to Chicago, we didn’t know if we’d be able to stay. We’d been looking for a larger city that would have us, a city where we could both find work, where we could afford to live. Apartments were expensive, and we needed a neighborhood where our anxious dog could walk and not have to deal with too much traffic, where I could commute by train to any number of colleges that might hire me as an adjunct. Downtown was out. We’d never heard of Lincoln Square, but we found a two-bedroom flat near the Rockwell stop. The apartment had seen better days, but I was excited to be in a neighborhood with more energy. There was a small office overlooking Rockwell Street and I could hear the bells from the L station and watch commuters pass. On my first day, I wandered down to find a cup of coffee and discovered a corner cafe a half block away. After a harsh winter in Minneapolis, followed by a summer alone while my husband did some contract work in Chicago, I was elated. People said hello. The cafe workers chatted with me. And I found what would turn out to be one of the best Little Free Libraries between our apartment and the cafe.

Inside was a trove of books that matched the demographics of the city, or at least of the neighborhood. Poetry books in Polish, Spanish, French, and Arabic. Strange novellas translated from several different languages into English. A book on improv and comedy. Philosophical treatises. Textbooks. Back issues of Granta. Nonfiction about race and politics and art. I grabbed one of the novellas (The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Cesares) and went upstairs to the empty apartment to read. Our furniture wouldn’t arrive for days, so all I had was the slowly deflating air mattress, ZZ my dog, and my coffee. In other words, the best combination.

That tiny library on a post with its glass door and latch became a sort of friend during the next four years while I traveled back and forth to Wisconsin to visit my dying father. I saw so few people during these years, traveled little, reeled from one horrible news story after another. I was trying to finish a novel that wouldn’t come together. Reading was a salve. What I love about Little Free Libraries is how organic they are. You might find a book that was popular twenty or more years ago, or one that should have been, and that is just the book you need just then.

Every few months, when the library needed refueling, I’d gather a stack of books and deposit them, returning the kindnesses dealt to me by strangers. These strangers became imagined correspondents as I began to recognize reading patterns. When I was still living in the apartment on Rockwell—for I moved a few blocks away later—I would sometimes catch a glimpse of the commuters who left books. I even daydreamed of placing notes in the library, asking these readers for coffee, but I didn’t want to ruin the silent exchange. There was no other library like this one that I could find. The rest were usually filled with top sellers, paperback mysteries, Guideposts, popular young adult and romance books. Sometimes there would be a few good books—but aren’t “good” books, just the books we ourselves want to read?

In early fall, a few months before my father passed, I went to drop off some books and witnessed a hornet stinging two copulating cicadas over and over again. I used one of my books to shoo the hornet away, but the hornet kept returning, and the cicadas kept going at it, rattling in alarm with each new assault. I got stung in the process. Like most writers I tend to see messages and metaphors everywhere. The dying, copulating cicadas, the relentless bully of a hornet, it all seemed too on point that morning. What I didn’t notice is that the library was falling apart, the wood too weathered. Then, a few weeks later, the door came off one of its hinges and was holding on by its latch. Nature and time were doing their work. By the time I visited again, the post had cracked in half and the whole library was on its side. The ruins lay there for a few days and then disappeared.

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I have so many books piled next to the bed that if I don’t stop accumulating, one day we will awake buried in them. When I try to explain to my husband how I miss the library, I expect him to not understand, but he says, “There was something about that one. Must be because of where it was positioned. The coolest books." What he meant was that there is a flow of people on that street, to that station, and those people come from all over the world and the city. There are Little Free Libraries all over Chicago, as well as fantastic independent bookstores and public libraries. We’re lucky that way. However, as diverse as Chicago is, it’s still one of the most segregated cities in the country. I fear that we’re losing our ability to encounter each other in more random and physical spaces. What we need are more organic kinds of meeting places, more sharing across borders of all kinds, more open-minded curiosity. What easier way to learn about other experiences than through a stop at a Little Free Library on your way to the train to grab the one book that seems the most mysterious or peculiar.