Upstate Reading

In terms of cash flow I don’t fall into the wealthy bracket.  My assets are largely in pre-printed paper form, and when I visit the local Little Free Library it’s generally to donate books rather than to take them.  Over Labor Day weekend I was in Ithaca.  One of the more famous features of the town is its weekend Farmers’ Market.  Indeed, the north-south corridor through town is a continuous traffic jam during Market hours.  Not only are there farm stands in the permanent open-sided structure, but there are a few craft booths and several places to buy al fresco fair from local restaurants.  In the summer parking can be hard to find, but the place has a carnival-like atmosphere nevertheless.  It also has a Little Free Library.  I’ve been to the Market many times but I’d never noticed it before.

Upstate New York is beautiful but it tends toward the conservative end of the political spectrum.  Ithaca is a pixel of blue in a screen of red, and that strangely showed in the Little Free Library.  Many of the books were either Bibles or popular kinds of devotional titles.  Given that Cornell isn’t known for its religion department (Ithaca College has a respectably sized philosophy and religion department, however) these books aren’t the kind you’d expect to find in an institution of higher education.  That’s why I was surprised to see a near mint copy of Bart Ehrman’s The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot on the shelves.  The Gospel of Judas hasn’t been big news for a few years now, but this was a book that suggests a different demographic than your average evangelical readership.

Like Ehrman, I once made a living as an adjunct at Rutgers University.  Indeed, it was this commonality that helped me to get to know him a bit.  He’s gone on to a kind of fame rare for biblical scholars.  Indeed, to have a sufficient number of copies of your book printed to end up in a Little Free Library—in other words, you have to have more cachet than your garden variety Ph.D.  In my local community LFL I like to leave books for others to take.  Just last week I stopped by and noticed that the summer had depleted the stock.  Ironically, I had noticed one of Neal Stephenson’s novels in the same circumstances as Ehrman’s.  I’m glad to see intelligent works on offer for the reading public.  And trading books with no money involved suggests to me that there’s a better form of economy than material greed.  All it takes is a Little Free Library and a little good will.

Good Monster

The little free library is a great idea.  Just after our move last year we contributed to our local many times as we discovered duplicates in the process of packing.  On one such venture, I discovered a book I wanted to read.  Not that I’d heard of it before, but any book with “golem” in the title catches my eye.  For the first (and so far only) time, I took a book.  Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman’s The Golem of Hollywood proved a fairly quick read for being over 600 pages.  I believe the industry term is “potboiler,” but it’s also a page-turner.  Nevertheless, it made me think.  The story follows a hard-bitten Jewish detective in Los Angeles.  Struggling with personal issues, he gets assigned to a bizarre homicide case that eventually takes him to Prague and Oxford, and then back to LA to clinch it.  And the killer is a golem.  (That’s not a spoiler, since it’s right there in the title.)

Parallel to the modern-day crime drama is the retelling of the biblical tale of the first days of humanity outside the Garden of Eden.  One of Adam and Eve’s daughters is headstrong and beautiful and when the tragedy between her brothers plays out she eventually takes her revenge on Cain.  Although not explicit about it, for violating the mark of Cain she witnesses the horrors that people will visit upon one another and her redemption is to become the soul that animates the golem of Prague.  Not your garden variety golem, she can transform into different shapes, and she stays loyal to the family of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the legendary first creator of the golem of Prague.

One of the frequent topics raised on this blog is how the Bible appears in everyday life, often unnoticed.  This novel is an example of that.  A further point, which is what stands behind my book Holy Horror, is that the Good Book is understood as mediated by popular culture.  Even those few biblical scholars who make it into the limelight can’t compete with the myriad representations of Scripture in the entertainment media.  Like The Golem of Hollywood, Holy Horror sees the Bible in the context of monsters.  Horror is an outsider genre.  Despite the many intelligent, thought-provoking exemplars extant, the default among the more refined is to see horror as something base and low.  It can also be a lot of fun.  Perhaps not great literature, The Golem of Hollywood is entertaining even as it underscores the continuing influence of the Good Book. 

Free Reading

I think I was driving through Montclair, New Jersey when I first noticed one.  A “little free library” in someone’s front yard.  Then I began to notice them around elsewhere.  Neat little outdoor kiosks filled with books.  Despite my love of literacy I’m not inclined to take books from such places.  For one thing my reading tastes are odd, and for another I want other people to catch the interest in reading.  And “free” is a great motivator.  The idea is simple: set up a little free library on your property, seed it with books, and watch it work.  People are encouraged to take what’s there for free.  And leave books they want to donate, if so inclined.  Now that we’re in Pennsylvania we discovered one in a nearby park.  A community feels more homey with books.

Searching for the concept online, I came to LittleFreeLibrary.org.  I’m not sure if they started the trend, but it provides the basic idea.  They even have plans for how to build your own and get your neighborhood reading.  If anyone wants a clue for making America great, here’s a free hint: it will involve books.  They’re a commodity unlike any other.  Mass-produced (often too enthusiastically so) they are generally inexpensive and can be used over and over again.  One of the biggest headaches for publishers is the used book market—since a book is a handful of ideas, once they’re released they’re difficult to control.  They can be sold again for less than market value, and yes, even given away.  Those who read see the value in giveaways, even if there’s no personal profit in it.

Early in our tenure here we decided to take a book to donate each time we go to the park.  Sometimes we forget, of course.  Our first donation was there for two weeks, but then found a new home.  A strange kind of joy accompanied finding the book gone.  Perhaps we’d done some good simply by opening a door and leaving something we were no longer using.  Then something unexpected happened—I saw a book from my reading list in the local.  Should I take it?  I have a list of books to seek in used bookstores, for, to the chagrin of my own industry, I participate in the used book market.  I had been looking for this tome for a few years, reluctant to pay full market value since it has been around since the sixties.  In the end I couldn’t resist.  Next week, I told myself, I’ll take two books to give back.  Literacy’s that way—it’s something even introverts can share.