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Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Free books for everyone (in Seattle)

Source: Allison Mitton

Source: Allison Mitton

Several months ago I finally created a Twitter account because, I rationalized, I need to stay relevant in the digital revolution. I immediately followed a variety of writers, editors, and publishers (making Twitter the most professionally oriented of my social media feeds), and last week that decision paid off in a big way—I discovered The Free Book Incident via a Tweet from Wave Books.

The Free Book Incident is a month-long event put on by Wessel & Lieberman Booksellers in partnership with Olson Kundig Architects in Seattle, where anyone can come in and take home books for free. Inspired by Baltimore’s ongoing free book exchange, “The Book Thing,” The Free Book Incident allows finding a book to be about discovery and connection rather than lists or price. As the press release explained:

“It is not a book store (there is nothing for sale); it is not a library (there is nothing to return). The Incident is a place for exploration, engagement, ideas, activity, conversation—and ultimately, alchemy—all of it generated by the decommidification of books.”

There is a wide variety of donated books, from Edith Wharton to the Bibliography of Paper Making and US Patents to a funny little book called You Can’t Unfry an Egg (about, per the flap, navigating retirement as discussed through the fictional account of a recently retired couple). The books are disorganized: in stacks on tables, upside down or backwards on shelves. But rather than being irritating, the disorder makes the experience more adventurous and homey. As though you were browsing a somewhat forgetful great-aunt’s massive library and had no idea if you might find a first edition Mark Twain.

I spent an hour at The Free Book Incident on Tuesday and came away delighted—my experience was more than my usual browsing of books, but an actual interaction with both people and text. Not only did I peruse all the shelves (twice), I participated in two new-to-me types of poetry. Against a long wall they had set up a table, half filled with old paperbacks, newspaper clippings, and Wite-Out; the other half full of graph paper and pencils. Wave Books managing editor Heidi Broadhead was there when I visited, and she explained the first half as erasure poetry, where you delete existing text to create something new. The other half was patterned after Franck André Jamme’s geometric poetry, and visitors were challenged to write their own. After creating (because truly, both forms felt more like creation than mere writing) geometric and erasure poems, I taped them on the wall alongside many others: My work is now part of The Free Book Incident.

Source: Allison Mitton

Source: Allison Mitton

As I left, I was struck by two distinct thoughts. First, why doesn’t this exist in all major cities? People donate books to libraries and Good Will and sell them cheaply online; it should not be too difficult to put together a supply of free books, if only for one month of the year. Second, what if someone created a book exchange specifically for children? With concern about children not reading physical books so acute, the idea of a free book exchange geared toward them could be worth pursuing—give them a novel experience (pun intended) surrounded by physical books, letting them participate in the creation of the written word or book art as well, and they might leave as fulfilled, inspired, and in love with books as I did.

Plus, I took home three books: a 1907 edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne stories, The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor (sadly, not the Elizabeth Taylor), and The Truth about Publishing, printed in 1960—I can’t imagine what the author would think if he saw our truth about publishing. But he’d probably approve of a free book exchange. Who wouldn’t?

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