October 2005

James Stegall


Pricing the Free Rack

There are many ways to judge a public library but my favorite is by the quality of its free books rack. You can learn a lot from a free books rack -- about a community, about publishing in general. Which books are most durable? Which books are most numerous? Which books will be around after the apocalypse (educated guess: the Book of Mormon and something by Stephen King).

The free books rack is, at a glance, an open vein on the character of popular reading in any given city -- hotel, RV park, summer camp, half-way house -- in America; free books are those that are either so good you want to pass them on, in too poor shape to sell, or such mindless entertainment that there’s no reason to keep them.

Genre writing is easiest to recognize when distilled down to the free rack: Westerns, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Romance, Mystery, Thriller. Who are the authors that transcend the perils of time and decay? Tom Clancy, Stephen King, John Grisham, Jackie Collins, Robin Cook... the names go on. The free rack is one of the few places where you can see represented a cross-sampling of all popular paperbacks: every decade has its style and taste. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to find something dating back to the forties or fifties -- some James Bond or Perry Mason. Because libraries usually weed out older paperbacks, especially as used-book sales have become successful fundraisers for under-funded libraries, the free rack might be the only place you see these books outside your grandma’s attic.

A second-hand store might be the other place to find a good representation of what’s in circulation, but even thrift stores turn away some books after a while. They can only hold so many copies of Dianetics. Ideally, there’s no censorship on the free rack. Depending on how much a library monitors it -- some make you sign out books, to ensure you’re actually bringing in your fare share, and don’t accept certain authors -- you can expect an accurate random sample. Randomness is important.

It’s the randomness I love. While there are enough of the genre writers to keep those readers happy, every now and then you come across something special. My eyes go first to the taller spines of trade paperbacks, the orange spines of Penguin Classics. Sometimes you find self-published books, hardbacks without dust jackets, or old textbooks. It depends on the generosity of the community.

The randomness of the free rack brought me into contact with John Banville, J.M. Coetzee and Ian McEwan. I got hooked on Ian Fleming because of the free rack.

One of my favorite incarnations of the free rack is “Books Donated to Deployed Troops.” As a guy who’s spent nine years in the army, I can’t tell you how good it was to arrive at Al Salem Air Base, Kuwait, and find a wall of books donated from who knows where across America. I read Bridget Jones’s Diary after finding it in a pile of free books at Rhein-Main Air Base, Germany, just before a deployment to Israel. Bridget got me through a sleepless 24-hour wait for the flight downrange, laughing. (I now admit to an unhealthy addiction to chick-lit.)

The randomness isn’t limited to selection. Sometimes you find things inside free books that would never make into a bookstore’s shelves: notes, highlighting, inscriptions, names and dates. While these could be distracting, to someone open to the random, these extra bits of information add to the experience of reading. Why did John recommend this book to Sylvia with all his heart in 1982? Why was this line in particular underlined? Does it mean anything to you? If the book was used for a class, the notes in the margins might provide additional insight you wouldn’t have realized alone. Anything is possible. The older and better the book, the more ancillary information it picks up on its journey through readers.

A little randomness can be a great thing -- the same way you used to search down the library stacks, finding other, unknown, books on the same subject you were researching. The free rack opens you up to unknown possibilities. I found Alex Garland’s The Tesseract in a free rack on a base here in Germany and have since devoured everything of his I can get my hands on.

My only problem with the free rack is that I’m a greedy user: I hate giving up books. It takes me a long time to search through my personal library and decide what to give up, knowing full well that I should choose the best books to pass on -- I hate the thought of my favorite books sitting unread on the rack or, worse yet, getting snatched up for the sole purpose of getting resold, unread, on eBay.

That’s the Catch-22. If you love a book, you have to set it free. Even if it’s sold on Amazon, I guess it’s going to someone who really wants to read it -- which is better than having it sit on my shelf. Even so, I find myself taking a lot more than I leave, and I often stand in front of the free rack rearranging books, feeling guilty, wondering if the librarian is somehow aware of my unbalanced use of the community’s generosity. When I find something really good, like a recent copy of T. Coraghessan Boyle’s East is East, in a cool U.K. edition, I wish I could pay for it.

But I know the only payment necessary is to return the generosity. It’s a real downer to see a rack that’s got nothing but copies of religious magazines or, worse, a Gideon Bible. Even a rack populated by Reader’s Digest Condensed Novels (as most hotels and RV parks seem to be) has something to read. You never know what you might end up enjoying, even if it is Jackie Collins. I always smile if I see a copy of Exit to Eden by Anne Rice’s nom-de-plume on a free rack, knowing that randomness is about to give somebody a big surprise (that could be a real awakening).

What I’ve often thought of doing with books I really love is leaving a note inside when they go to the free rack, something like: "If you loved this book as much as I did, drop me a note at..." an anonymous email address. Who knows what could happen? Sometimes it’s enough just to write your name inside the cover of a paperback, knowing someone will read your name and know you experienced the same story, ideas, whatever.

It’s even more of a thrill to finish a book you loved, and know that inside the cover is a handwritten name and date from before you were born, and now the experience of this beat-up paperback has completed a connection through time. That’s the magic of the free rack.