Yesterday on my way home from the studio I was listening to NPR. Melissa Block introduced a story about "Little Free Libraries," structures slightly larger than birdhouses that are erected on short poles on neighborhood lawns and filled with 10 or so books.
The motto is, "Give a book, return a book." The founder of the Little Free Libraries, Todd Bol of Hudson, Wis., first built one in his yard in the shape of a one-room schoolhouse, in honor of his mother, a schoolteacher. People were so enamored of it, he and friend Rick Brooks, of Madison, Wis., created a website, and 200 of the structures can now be found in 34 states and 17 countries. Bol and Brooks say their goal is for 2,500 Little Free Libraries.
"They're hoping to exceed the number of libraries built by the late philanthropist Andrew Carnegie," said NPR news anchor Kristen Durst.
I called my husband when I got home to ask if he had heard the story. My husband is good for many things, but there are two things in particular he excels at. One, he has spectacular recall for movies.
"What was that movie? There was a guy, and a scarf?" I'll say, and he'll say, "Oh yeah, that was 'An Education.' "
Two, he can help me suss out exactly why I feel the way I feel about almost everything. Which was what I needed him for when the Little Free Library story mercifully came to a close.
Granted, it was a feel-good story that had it all -- charm, community-building, pro-literacy -- and a quaint tone that no doubt made listeners ache for simpler times when people left their homes for reasons other than meth explosions. But the story bugged me, and I was counting on my husband to help me figure out why.
Unfortunately, he hadn't heard it. I started to re-create it for him. There was the woman who was beside herself at finding a familiar old children's book in the LFL in her neighborhood.
There was another woman, a self-described Little Free Library "caretaker," (she keeps the walkway free of snow) who claimed that, thanks to the draw of the LFLs, she had met neighbors she never knew she had.
But I got so exasperated and bored by my own telling of the tale that I gave up midstory.
"Just read it online," I said, and the next day, as I was about to send him the link to the audio, I saw where someone named Max77 had also been irritated by the story.
"Putting some books in a box in your yard does not make a library," he wrote in the comments section.
"What's the definition of a library?" someone else wrote.
"Maybe someone will put a dictionary in a box and you can consult it," Max77 retorted.
I was beginning to like this guy. Was it this question of semantics (what makes a library a library?) that I also found annoying? Or were Max77 and I responding to something deeper and more fundamentally disturbing than two men calling a birdhouse a library and themselves Andrew Carnegie co-competitors?
"I don't know why you're mad," my husband said, after he had listened to the story. "It's homey. It's old-fashioned. It is quaint." But he admitted Max77 had a point. "It's like sticking a dictionary in the box and calling it Wikipedia," he said. We laughed self-righteously.
With all due respect to Max77 and my husband, I don't think my beef is with calling the boxes "libraries." I think it's that touting the virtues of a box on a pole filled with a few people's idea of good reading material feels contrived and not a little bit pathetic.
So here's my advice to those Little Free Library aficionados: Get thee to your local, UN-free bookstore, where you, and not fate, will decide what you should read. You'll be helping to support a business and a writer. And as an added bonus, you just might meet people whose imaginations are bigger than a birdhouse.
Email Dana Shavin at firstname.lastname@example.org.