We had just been let off by the taxi at the corner of the block in the Prezelauer district of Berlin where my friend Elfriede lives. Dragging our 20-kilo loads along, my daughter and I trudge along the street toward her house. I have my eyes on the sidewalk and almost bump into a tree trunk—and look up to find it’s not. In the roughly carved recesses of what was once a tree, are bookshelves, the books inside protected by curved glass that could be opened with a push. No locks and no latches. The books look well thumbed and put there by caring hands, not just discarded after a quick read. Later, Elfriede explains it to us. People in the neighbourhood drop off books they have read and would like to share. Others pick them up, or just leaf through them while sitting at the café next door, sometimes leaving another book in exchange.
A lovely woman I meet at dinner later in the week tells me that if she finishes a book while she’s on the Underground (she lives in London), she leaves it on the train for someone to pick up and read. If she still has some way to go before her stop, she moves to another spot and watches to see if someone will pick it up. “It feels good to share something you’ve read with someone else, even a complete stranger,” she says. Sometimes, of course, a person will look at the book and put it back down. "It's interesting to see what kind of person will actually take it to read," she adds.
And another friend talks about books left behind at the women’s hostel she visits, books residents are done reading and have no wish to pack into their transcontinental luggage. She’s often found great reads among these discarded collections, and has replenished the lot with her own once-read books. So the shelves in the hostel are a constant surprise—the books do a merry go round, and each time she passes the shelf she finds something new and interesting.
I, on the other hand, find it awfully difficult to part with books. I hoard them. The stories they hold within their covers are themselves embedded within stories of my life and relationships. Gifts from friends. Memories of moods and conversations. Contexts of giving and taking. The jackets often hold dedications that I would hate to discard.
And so my bookshelves groan under the weight of my acquisitions, usually gaining more pounds than they lose (I do keep losing books to defaulting borrowers from time to time). I love sharing my books with other avid readers, but I do want my books back. I find comfort in my very own hardback version of One Hundred Years of Solitude, or my disintegrating copy of The Far Pavillions that my father bought for me on my 16th birthday from India Book House on Kingsway (a shop that no longer exists, on a street that is known by another name now).
I must say, though, that the thought of passing on good books has its appeal. To know that a story that one has enjoyed is being experienced by someone else, can be comforting. While I would certainly not be able to part with every single book on my shelves, there are some I would be happy to leave in the Book Tree, and maybe even on the subway…and it actually might be a thrill to know that someone has picked it up, smiled at lines that you’ve enjoyed, and cried at parts that have choked you up, and lived through the story in their own ways.