Speaking of books on the shelves…

….Book Nooks spring up at The College.

Book banner

(Some parts I KNOW; some parts I THINK; some parts, I must IMAGINE.)

********

She leans her head against the second shelf from the top–it’s a sturdy old metal bookshelf, tucked in the alcove where the vending machines used to be, before the college bumped out the front of the building and created a light-filled, people-filled, new lounge area.  She hunkers, ignoring the heaviness of the book bag whose straps pull her shoulders back (no worries about posture issues here!) It’s a Judy Blume book, for God’s sake; she hasn’t thought about Judy Blume since fourth grade, when the teacher read them Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.

She loved that book, and she’d forgotten all about it.  She loved the story of Peter and his crazy little brother Fudge–she had an equally crazy, but not as good-intentioned, younger brother.  She would have liked to fold HIM up in a rollaway bed like a human taco most days.

She was walking by the alcove when there, wedged in between a textbook and Fifty Shades of Grey, Superfudge caught her eye.

She’d forgotten that there were more books about Peter and Fudge.  Once she wanted to read them all.  Her fondest hope, as a ten-year-old, had been that her mother would scrape up enough money for her to buy a copy at the annual Scholastic book fair.

It hadn’t happened.  And she never did get to the public  library; her school library had had copies once but they’d long ago been stolen.  It had made her mad, the whole thing, and eventually she’d just said the heck with it.

And now here she was, 25, and back at college, studying to be an Administrative Office Assistant, and there was the book.  The sign says, “Help Yourself!”  She looks around, a little red, a little worried that people will see her tucking a children’s book into her bag, but no one does.  She can’t wait to go home and read it.

********

“How can we get students to read?”

The English faculty wrestle, constantly, with the question.  Some of the students do read for pleasure, of course, and every once in a while something from the English 150 reader would spark somebody who would go off and find a book by Shirley Jackson or another poem by Mary Oliver.  But mostly, if asked about a good book, the students would respond blankly.  Some finally would come up with Where the Heart Is, by Billie Letts.

The instructors wondered why that one book spoke to so many students.  Then they discovered it was the mandated read in the remedial class many of the students had to pass before entering college-level English.

There’s got to be a way, they thought,  to get students to read just for the joy of it.  Assigned readings in class were chores.  They wanted students bursting into class saying, “I just read the BEST book…”

********

He’s in the Campus Center, in the study lounge, which is below stairs, tucked under the classroom hallway, away from the bustle of the cafeteria and the book store.  Usually there are only one or two people here on the old upholstered love seats; there’s room for 25, probably, so there’s room to share.  And outlets; he can plug in and recharge his tablet and work on his assignment for his history class.

Today: something new.  An old bookshelf, gunmetal gray, industrial looking, jam packed full of books.  “Help Yourself!” says a computer generated sign.  He slides off the love seat, goes over to look.

He is 35 years old, recently laid off from the job he’s held for ten years.  The factory, although no one wants to admit it, is probably headed for closing.  The luxury basket business isn’t exactly booming; people aren’t as inclined right now to pay 85 dollars for a basket, like they did oh, say, seven years ago.  Basket weaver: that’s not exactly a skill that gets snapped up on a resume, so he is back in school, on a grant, studying electrical engineering technology.  Once, he thought about being a history teacher, but now, he needs a light at the end of a short tunnel.  He has child support to pay–well, of course, he WANTS to support his kids!  And it looks like Cindi might be pregnant; another responsibility.

On the top shelf, a fat paperback catches his eye, the splashes of red on the cover, and the title: The Bastard.  By John Jakes.  He pulls it off the shelf and studies the blurb; it’s the first in a series about the War for Independence.  It looks like, too, that at least the next three in the series are there on the shelf.

He reads for thirty minutes, then snaps to, startled.  He needs to get some work done.  But he wants to take this book.  And–well, the sign does say “Help Yourself.”  He grabs the other books in the series–what if they’re gone when he comes back?–and stuffs them into his duffel.  He’ll bring them all back, in a batch, when he’s finished.

********

It may have been one of the adjuncts who came up with the Book Nook idea.  ‘What if every building on both campuses had a bookshelf, like one of those, take-a-book, leave-a-book neighborhood cubbies that seemed to be popping up all over the country?’ she–or someone–said.  ‘No charge, and nobody telling you you HAD to take one or what to read?’

They all liked the idea.

‘But,’ said someone, ‘let’s not make the leave a book part mandatory.’  Of course, everyone would be welcome to donate, but some students just didn’t have a book to trade.

That was true, they all agreed.  But where would they find the books?

********

She’s 54 years old and tired, probably (she hates to admit) too tired to be doing this, which is taking a medical assisting degree.  It’s paid for by what she calls her benefits, but, truth be told, she was no great shakes in school the first time around, and that was over 35 years ago.  If she’d ever learned any math at all, it had long ago disappeared from her steel trap mind, and here she was:  in the lowest remedial math class the college offered

And struggling.  How long would it take her to get all the way through just the courses she needs to pass before she can take regular classes?  She’ll be seventy freaking years old, the world’s oldest medical assistant, probably.

She’s in the lobby of College Hall, watching the news, when she notices the bookshelf.  “Help Yourself” it says, and on the top shelf, a nice hardcover, is that Harry Potter book.  She saw the movie; she kind of got what all the fuss was about.  She told herself someday she’d give the book a shot.

Does she have time to read a big, fat hard cover book like that?

What the HELL, she thinks, and she grabs the book from the shelf.

*************

They tossed the idea around and decided to make it into a service project in their technical writing classes. The students would negotiate the communications for the bookshelves; they would write the public relations releases for a book drive.  They’d get one bookshelf in one building, and then they’d build from there.

But they didn’t reckon with the students.

ONE bookshelf?  the students said.  No way.  A shelf—a Book Nook—they said, in every building on both campuses.  And we’ll keep them filled with books.

They got the shelves from Facilities; some of them were a little wonky, but there were students in all the sections willing to throw in a little elbow grease.  They reinforced; they pounded out dents; they scrubbed until the shelves were cleaner than they’d ever been.

They put the word out: we need books.  They told other students.  Some went to the libraries and asked for the discards.  Some wrote to used book dealers and big book stores.  They let the faculty and staff know what they were doing.  They dropped a word to the teachers at their kids’ schools, to the people at their jobs, to their extended families.

************

He’s staring at the books on the shelves, mightily tempted to snatch up a copy of A Child Called It.  When he taught high school English, he’d probably had 25 non-readers who read that book, and then, ignited, started looking for more books that opened doors the way that Pelzer’s book did. Teaching English, doing all that grading, he’d had to be super picky about his outside reading, super selective.

But now, he is retired, doing a little part-time administrative work for the college, and he does have time catch up on his reading.  And he has books at home; he could borrow and return A Child Called It, and bring back a box of books to help stock these shelves.  He notices that the once-bulging shelves are getting pretty empty.

The next week, he remembers his box of books, and he finds the English department chairperson and asks where he can deposit it.  She tells him to meet her at the storage room behind the auditorium in Health Sciences Hall.  He drives over–the darned books are HEAVY–and totes the box into the building, nodding at the students reading in the lounge.

The English chair is waiting for him at the auditorium door; she flips the lights on and unlocks the storage room door, pulls it open.

He almost drops his box.  The room is full–it’s FULL– of books–books of every sort, fiction, non-fiction, popular, scholarly, young adult, children’s.  He doesn’t know where he’ll put his box–maybe on the two square feet of movement space.

“Don’t worry,” she says, “the students will be in today to take boxes to each of the buildings. Can you believe it?”

They stare for a moment at the piles and towers and boxes of books, two seasoned readers whose lifelong goal has been to share the passion.

“They’re reading, Joe,” she says, almost a whisper.  “They’re READING.”

Shelves

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