Has a book ever changed your life?
When I was seventeen, one changed mine. I read a book that gently informed the rest of my teenage years and continues to guide me today. Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet fell into my hands as a gift from my father. It remained on my bedside table for a month before I tentatively reached for it on my way out one day and cracked it open at a Second Cup one faithful summer afternoon. I remember not being able to put the book down and I still remember Rilke’s words: “No experience has been too slight, and the least incident unfolds like a destiny, and fate itself is like a wonderful, wide web in which each thread is guided by an infinitely tender hand and laid alongside another and held and borne up by a hundred others”…. A cold coffee had never tasted so good.
I was reminded of that passage recently. To me, it speaks to life’s little moments that we sometimes take for granted – the ones that seem little yet, in the grand scheme of things, have the power to greatly shape our lives.
A couple weeks ago, Literacy Quebec had its first free book giveaway. Book donation boxes had piled up in our Verdun office that deserved to be opened and shared. So we set up a table on the sidewalk outside and gave each book a spot in our moveable library. The response was incredible. Before we even had a chance to finish setting up the full table and boxes beneath it, our first curious street-goer ventured over. And then another and another and…another.
I pulled up a chair next to the table and watched joyfully as…
We really had a bit of everything on that table – War and Peace, books on the wines of Burgundy, a guide for first-time elementary school teachers, The Wind in the Willows, books on fashion, books on chocolate cake, parenting advice, poetry and books on places to visit. A bit of everything. And at the end of the day, we were surprised to find most books had cleared out. We were surprised about what people in our community gravitated toward and it turned out that “a bit of everything” had become our sweet spot. A bit of everything appealed to a bit of every one on the sidewalk that day and it was a fantastic thing to see.
A small event like this one also strengthened a sense of community in Verdun. At one point, two women reached to take the same book - something that, for dramatic effect, could've spurred a small quarrel. However, they instead agreed to share the book. They exchanged phone numbers and agreed that when the first was finished reading, she'd call the other to arrange a meeting to exchange.
And for some of our visitors, this initiative was an opportunity to grow their love of reading. Two little boys from the school across the street came by our table after their class let out. They were each holding a small plant and after they both chose their books, they scurried off. With a plant still in one hand, one boy had chosen a book about how pencils are made. He cradled it tightly with his other available hand. Perfect balance.
The magic of the printed word is definitely not dead. People still reach for books when they can. It's just that, nowadays, buying new books and even some used ones can be costly and not everyone has time to browse a library. Sometimes a small sidewalk giveaway is needed to remind them of their love of reading.
As I watched people come by our table, I caught a glimpse into the excitement that reading and books still spark. An event of this nature can have tremendous impact that isn’t necessarily quantifiable but can be subtly, powerfully informative to the rest of our lives. Mexican artist Jorgé Mendez Blake illustrated this in his viral art installation “The Impact of a Book”. The installation itself was 23 metres long and used 5000 bricks. Yet, only one book was needed for the message to be conveyed and sometimes that’s all it takes. A book, an illustration, a poem, a sentence, a word and an idea – they can all act as threads that support the wonderful, wide web of our lives.