Sharing books has a long history —

  • dog-eared copies of favorites read more than once
  • reading lists shared with friends
  • book clubs
  • libraries.

Each of these is a means of promoting knowledge of and access to books that might otherwise not be noticed.  While most libraries have felt compelled to embrace the world of e-books for their patrons, the other examples depend on a more personal touch — the cherished volume loaned to a friend (but with a bookplate inside the front cover to guarantee its safe return!), the suggested reading lists tailored to the interests of friends, the book clubs that come together around certain themes and concerns.  Although for most people reading is a solitary activity, it is at the same time one that spawns the search for community — for people who can share our fascination about the development of a character or plumb the depths of well-constructed prose or offer different perspectives about related works.

In a culture seemingly obsessed with all things electronic, I have been fascinating to watch the development of the Little Free Libraries.  The first one was built in 2009 in Wisconsin, and since that time, thousands of these structures have been placed all over the world as a mechanism for sharing books.  There are no traditional librarians that attend these collections, so at first glance they seem impersonal.  But the Little Free Libraries web site includes the stories of the “stewards” who have created these outposts of reading and sharing, and many do so for intensely personal reasons.  There are plenty of apps and web sites that allow people to share reading lists and commentaries on books, but yet these tactile libraries are increasingly popular.

Many uphold the value of the shield of anonymity that cloaks the true identities of people on the Internet, but I can make an argument that movements like the Little Free Libraries are challenging that anonymity and attempting to establish a more personal connection.  It’s not that check-out cards are required or that patrons are necessarily identified in any way.  But the collections of books begin as reflections on the people who assemble them, and the fact that many of these libraries are located on personal property underscores the fact that these people are willing to stand by their choices.  The impact of these libraries can easily be gauged just by watching books disappear and new ones appear.  And while the patrons of these libraries may never choose to meet in person and discuss a book over a cup of tea, I still contend that they are filling a basic need for community.

I’ve chosen to write about books and community today, so let me conclude with a recommendation: Benedict Anderson wrote Imagined Communities in 1983 (and updated it several times since).  It’s a fascinating and extremely well-received look at nationalism and the factors that bring people together.