During lockdown, piles of discarded books sprung up everywhere: outside houses, ranging along low walls, balanced precariously atop gate posts. Leafing through them set my imagination alightby Rosalind Jana / October 10, 2020 / Leave a comment
During lockdown they sprung up everywhere: outside houses, ranging along low walls, balanced precariously atop gate posts. Some were accompanied by handwritten notes saying “help yourself!” Others were sprawled as though abandoned mid-sort. Everyone was getting rid of books, and, in the absence of open charity shops, the unwanted contents of their shelves were free for the taking.
I came to appreciate these stacks on my daily walks. There was something enjoyable in the occasional glimpse of piled spines while wandering down favourite routes and exploring unfamiliar streets. Something revelatory, too. Among the assorted nutritional guides and thrillers, I found reading material I would never have thought to buy—texts on film and phenomenology, say, or Scottish architecture—and several books I’d been meaning to obtain—thanks to whoever left out Philippe Sands’s East West Street on a grey May morning when everyone’s front gardens were teeming with roses.
It wasn’t just what I took, though. It was also about what those stacks gave away. I began to treat the piles like clues, imagining the lives of the people who’d left them there. What had happened in the home now getting rid of multiple teach-yourself-Italian textbooks? Had whoever bought them intended to learn for a partner, a family connection, or simply for the singular pleasure of acquiring a new language? And did they achieve fluency, let it lapse, or give up in a fit of pique? Similarly, what had spurred the abandonment of a beautiful old lime green edition of The Crucible and an ugly modern copy of Dr Faustus? Was it someone done with drama or, more likely, had they belonged to a recently finished A-level student desperate to banish these much-revised texts from sight?
I continued to sleuth, never quite arriving at any definitive answers. Whole lives could be conjured from a cursory glance. There was no way of knowing who these books had belonged to, or how these piles formed composite reflections of my neighbour’s households. I wondered whether the texts scattered across a pavement several streets away, devoted to an intriguing array of topics including tarot cards and trade union history, had been a single collection or a shared…