…I’m coming to get you, I hissed,
as I entered the library like a man stepping
into a freight elevator of science and wisdom.
“The Literary Life,” Billy Collins
It’s a busy Friday night at Black Forest Academy. Upstairs, the junior varsity boys basketball team plays one of their last home games of the season. In the yearbook and graphic arts lab across the way, a few students and teachers watch the Opening Ceremonies of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, projected on the wall. (The Parade of Nations is never more amusing than when some of the loudest cheers are for Moldova, Romania, Turkey, Tajikistan and Korea. We tried hard to keep up when the star-clad Americans strolled onto the scene.)
Having resolved to watch basketball later in the evening, I’ve left the Olympic viewing party to get dinner and browse at the Book Swap. The Book Swap, one of dozens of annual traditions in our small English-speaking community, is exactly what it sounds like. Bring an already-read and now-unwanted book in the afternoon, get a coupon for a free new book in the evening. Simple. Or, as some of the students do, bring twenty books that you gathered from dusty corners of your dorm, books left behind by students lightening their loads, and come away with twenty that you haven’t been dog-earing for several years already.
The Book Swap is one of those Inventions born of Necessity for which missionaries are famous. We don’t have to invent all that much, I admit, since Germany is decidedly first-world. In our frustrated moments we blame life’s difficulties on the culture, but by the rational light of day we mostly know that car trouble and medical bills are unpleasant in every language. There are Kafkaesque tax processes and unfindable groceries, but as North Americans living in a German village in the Black Forest, we get along just fine most of the time.
What we don’t have, however, are books. English books. They’re mostly not for sale in our village, and this has never really surprised me. Imagine the smallest town you can in America. In Pacific Northwest terms, our town is the size of Fall City or Concrete, Washington. Then, if you can, imagine that town having a bookstore. Finally, picture the bookstore carrying a section of books in French. “Why would we have English books?” the baffled shop owner had asked me shortly after I moved here and began inquiring. “No one likes reading in English.”
Of course there are still English books here, hundreds and thousands of them, stashed away in our living rooms and offices and in our own school library, which is what makes the Book Swap work in the first place. It hinges on the idea that people aren’t necessarily purchasing new books, but rather sending well-read words on to new audiences. It’s a beautiful idea from every angle–ecological, intellectual, communal, economic–but nothing can describe the delight of experiencing it in person.
This year, I go down with a coupon entitling me to seven free books, which I’d earned by cleaning out my living room and classroom bookshelves earlier today. I’m rather late, half an hour after opening, so by the time I arrive the pickings are slim. I peruse the tables of fiction–labeled Adult and Young Adult–along with the intriguing Miscellaneous and nostalgic Children’s sections. I pause for a while among the cookbooks, marveling over the rounded yellow letters and orangey photographs that place most of them firmly in the 1970s and 80s. Apparently missionaries aren’t up to transporting cookbooks transcontinentally. They collect here, like rain in a birdbath.
I’m not really here for new (old) books, honestly. I have a few novels at home that I keep for sentimental reasons, and the poetry books that I’ve brought because I can’t read poetry digitally, but most of my new reading comes either from the library or the Kindle store these days. I’m seldom willing to take the risk of physically owning a book that I might not like, even here where it’s a free exchange. I pick up a volume of Kipling short stories, and an old copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
For me, the chief enjoyment of the Book Swap is the students who flock here. Unlike their counterparts on other continents, the majority of our students love to read. Before I know it, I’m showing my meager findings to a girl weighted down with a stack of books she’s selected on advice from others, by attraction to covers or by the names authors she already knows. I find another student with a Rubbermaid bin full of books–the best books, he assures me–that he’s rescued from obscurity. An illustrated Bible and an anthology of Persian poetry stare up at me from the top of his heap. He’s delighted with his discoveries, even though he’s a senior who will leave most of these books in this valley just four months from now. Between now and then, they are his.
Unable to find any books I’m moved to own, I begin to make my way toward the exit as another former student enters, clutching a coupon in her hand.
“I can get one book,” she says solemnly, waving the coupon. “One. I better make it good.”
“Here, get a few,” I say, handing over my unused coupon. “Enjoy.”
“Really?” she hesitates, eyeing the coupon.
“Of course. I’m your teacher. I want you to have books!”
She squeals and throws her arms around my neck, and I laugh. Later, she proudly shows me three books written by and about women–an aviator, Biblical women and a friend of Anne Frank’s–eager to share the stories she’ll soon be drinking in like water. And I think, this is a brilliant night.