Surprises from shared bookcases

Published 8:21 pm Monday, May 11, 2015

For many young Australians, backpacking around Europe is a rite of passage. I set out in January 2002, a few weeks shy of my 22nd birthday.

With not much money, no job, not knowing where I’d sleep the first night, I boarded a plane at Brisbane Airport not to return for two years, save one brief visit home.

Of what I learned, not least were the pleasures of the youth hostel honor-system bookcase.

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Before the advent of the Kindle or the iPad, setting off around Europe with a backpack and limited funds was not conducive to maintaining a reading habit … if it were not for the backpackers bookcase.

Take a book, leave a book is the concept, and with lots of time to while away on trains and waiting for them and other modes of public transportation, it afforded me with some great reading experiences.

So I was heartened to learn in the Suffolk News-Herald that a Boy Scout from Suffolk’s Troop 1 has taken on an Eagle Scout project not all that far removed from the backpackers’ bookcase.

Encouraging folks to take a book and leave a book, Joshua Durham’s half-dozen Little Libraries will be housed at various locations around the city, including stores and churches.

Probably the closest I get to believing in fate is the magic unleashed by the honor-system library embodied by Durham’s project and the backpacker bookcase.

I maintain on my iPhone a list of books that someday I intend to read but likely never will. When I do get around to one, it usually never matches the expectations I had for it.

Similarly, when I visit the library or bookstore intending to pick up some new material, nothing seems to leap out at me. I generally select something desultorily, and it lets me down.

But pretty much every ratty, spine-frayed book I chanced across in a backpackers’ bookcase was music to my mind.

Some were from authors I’d heard about but otherwise never would have read. Others were completely from left field.

Because reading, like music, is personal and highly subjective, I don’t want to divulge which books the universe guided me toward during my roaming.

But I will say that I first read Robert M. Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” aboard a ferry across the Ionian Sea from Brindisi, Italy, before leaving it in a bookcase somewhere in Patras, Greece, for someone else’s general enlightenment.

My sleeping bag rolled out on the deck (the cheapest fare) beneath a full moon shimmering on those mystical waters and those yellowing pages, it was a reading experience unrivaled before or since.

Suffolk will be glad for Durham’s initiative.