Perched on a three-foot pole, it was an adorable, dollhouse-sized wooden box holding a hodgepodge of books. “Take a book…share a book,” read the letters painted on its lid.
When I chanced upon that Little Free Library a couple of years ago in a suburb of Washington, D.C., I instantly wanted one for myself. Poking around online, I found that Little Free Libraries were a global movement that had been spreading since 2009, racking up more than 75,000 whimsical book boxes across more than 80 countries and all 50 states.
The Wisconsin man who launched that movement, Todd Bol, died of pancreatic cancer last week at age 62. He leaves a beautiful legacy, a brilliant idea that synergized love of books with neighborly sharing. He also leaves many of us who hosted libraries with some deep lessons about humanity.
When I first set up the little red library on our family home’s front steps, I saw it as an expression of our goodwill toward our neighbors — and a way for them to express goodwill toward each other. Also, of course, it was a public proclamation that books are treasures worth sharing.
At first, the little library brought nothing but a nice wave of collective approval. Then, one day, all the books were gone. A couple of dozen of them, all at once.
I refilled the box. They disappeared again. And again.
My pleasant benevolence curdled into sour bafflement. Who had missed the kindergarten lesson about sharing? What kind of person sees a batch of books meant for everyone and takes them all?
I asked advice columnist Steve Almond to help me wrap my head around people who steal free books. Steve met and matched me with the story of a thief who’d recently stolen the red wagon from his daughter’s preschool. Who does that? What could be going through their mind? He hazarded that such people must have shut down their “moral imaginations” — they’re not thinking about how their actions affect others.
The key, he suggested, was to see those thieves as people like any of us sinners — and not to lose faith that it’s worthwhile to perform acts of kindness and create beauty.
Some social media commenters offered a different view: that whoever took all my library’s books could not be seen as a thief anyway, because this was a little free library. Free means free for the taking — in any quantity.
Neither argument helped me much. I still had a ruined-birthday-party feeling, that what was supposed to be a shared moment of light and giving had been ruined by some selfish darkness.
I left the box out there anyway, emptier but still running. And one day, I happened to look out the window and see the book taker. It was a man I’d noticed around the neighborhood before, always in a dark dirty raincoat, often talking to himself. He wandered the streets slowly and aimlessly, in all weathers.
Suddenly, the disappearing books took on a whole different hue. Whether he was selling them at a nearby bookstore, or keeping them, or even just looking at them and discarding them, he was a person of misfortune. A person in need. He was using more heavily a neighborhood resource that he probably needed more than the rest of us.
“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” — the old socialist maxim -- came to mind. His needs were different. And our abilities — my neighbors’ and my family’s — were different.
Over time, I found that even when the man in the raincoat would occasionally empty out the whole box, it would quickly fill up again. That wasn’t my work, usually; it was my well-read neighbors who were sloughing off their own books in hopes they might bring pleasure to someone else.
I’d thought at first that my little library was a battleground between good and evil, the good people putting in books and the evil ones taking out too many of them. The moral of that story would be comforting: that the good, the givers, outnumber the bad, the takers — an Anne Frank-style “people are truly good at heart.”
But now I have to add another dimension: fortune and misfortune. To put in books, you must be both good and fortunate, in that you’ve had the great good luck to love books, and have a surplus. To take out too many books — you could just be greedy. No excuse for that. But maybe, you’re just unlucky.
Thanks to Todd Bol, billions of books have been shared. He told the Minneapolis Star Tribune not long before he died that he was the most successful person he knew, would never trade places with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. I would add to his list of accomplishments: His movement cast more light on human nature, and mostly — at least when we’re giving and taking books -- we’re really not so bad.
This segment aired on October 26, 2018.