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  • Aarik Danielsen

A Free Library

Let me draw you a map of my neighborhood, somewhere in the middle of the middle of the middle, and color the legend. Green spires for my favorite trees; glowing gold signifying houses that hang especially warm Christmas lights. And blue stars, forming a strange constellation of little free libraries, each with their own character.


On the south side of Anderson Avenue, a well-built cabinet for children’s books old and new. Once, in the library over on Broadway, I saw an end-times manual playing house with books by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Hillary Clinton. Some nights I pace the sidewalk slowly, trying to eavesdrop on their conversation.


 
I daydream about fashioning my own literary lean-to, filling it with only the essentials—titles I want all my neighbors to know.
 

Down Greenwood, maybe a mile over, sits my favorite freestanding library. One late, fateful night I discovered a copy of My Antonia there; I hope to return something of equal value.


I daydream about fashioning my own literary lean-to, filling it with only the essentials—titles I want all my neighbors to know. Questions hurry to form a line, bumping into each other. First, something age-old: Just who is my neighbor?


I picture people, some known to me and some faceless, who occupy the small brown boxes plotted on my map. And I see you out there somewhere, reader. Even if you live just outside the page. These are the books I want everyone to encounter.


Questions of what stays and what goes reach the front of the queue. Like, which Cormac McCarthy novel best clothes the awful, exquisite wildness of this world with flesh?


We need plenty of poetry, so here’s a copy of Saint Mary Oliver’s Devotions; I dog-ear all the passages I think you’ll like. Her dog poems, of course, and “Wild Geese” and the one where she feels something warmer “than all the electricity in New York City.”


I reach for Louise Glück, whose poems will set you on your heels, laughing, swooning or both. And some Franz Wright, so you might smell the snow settling around his verses, so I know you know about hope “unendurable, unendurable.”


I throw in Ross Gay’s “Be Holding,” the book-length poem I heard him perform in a hair salon one Saturday afternoon. He sang the radio songs sounding throughout, reminded us all to breathe, wrung out every word to make wine and then passed the bottle around.


A Murakami novel, so you can hear the mystic jazz in his prose; and Denis Johnson stories because the world wants to be unforgiving, but can’t help and spill its hope. Niall Williams’ This is Happiness for the way he writes light, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man for the same reason.


Taking a Thomas Jefferson razor to Kerouac’s Desolation Angels and Big Sur, I strip all the clumsy hot talk, all the preening about who will be first in God’s kingdom. Because when Kerouac illustrates loneliness, he might be a prophet. And when Kerouac chases the trees and rivers all the way down, past their cellular level, he might just be a disheveled priest listing all God made and called good.


 
Maybe I’ll toss in a few unfinished manuscripts from my own hand. One about beauty, one about John Coltrane, one about the night sky. They all say the same thing.
 

Pictures convey thousands of words, so here’s a coffee-table book constraining the two-tone majesty of Ansel Adams. Maybe a primer on the paintings of Edward Hopper to ensure you don’t just know “Nighthawks,” but also “Western Motel.” Do you know “Western Motel?” The strange expression worn by the woman at the foot of the hotel bed, how she waits in sight of the sedan she parked at the foothills.


Now I’m just knocking books off my shelves, afraid to leave someone out. In goes the work of everyday saints like Joan Didion and Annie Dillard. Here are books that introduce my friends, Shawn Smucker and Lore Wilbert and KJ Ramsey and Courtney Ellis.


Maybe I’ll toss in a few unfinished manuscripts from my own hand. One about beauty, one about John Coltrane, one about the night sky. They all say the same thing.


Recognition comes a little late: no neighborhood library could house all these pages.


Maybe I should open a bookstore. I can’t take your money. Maybe I’m building a real library, one with deep stacks and special collections rooms. But I know nothing about ancient manuscripts, and I think libraries require special taxing districts.


 
I am a Bible with lines crossed out, entire sentences rearranged to make me their object. Someone scratched swear words into the revelation moments just after Jesus’ parables, and hollowed out the minor prophets to harbor a flask.
 


Growing up in church, someone told me I might be the only Bible a person ever reads. I still don’t know what that really means. The intent qualifies itself, but I warn people away from these scriptures.


I am a Bible with lines crossed out, entire sentences rearranged to make me their object. Someone scratched swear words into the revelation moments just after Jesus’ parables, and hollowed out the minor prophets to harbor a flask.


But something else they told us in youth group keeps scratching me underneath the skin. Something about garbage in, garbage out. Or put more positively, the light we absorb is the light we’ll reflect.


My little free library is short on theology, because I don’t know how to pick that out for you. And because there’s theology in all of it. I have hidden all these words in my heart that I might not sin against you. That I might even love you.


Maybe I am not a Bible you read, but the library door you open. All these books, the ones I’d offer you if I could—they all have me in common. That sounds strange, arrogant even, but hear what I mean. These books once worked inside me; now I pray I’m working them out.


Having read Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, I can tell you how love is all dazzling gold and orange, hot enough to transfigure or burn you down. Internalizing the weather patterns in poems by Ted Kooser and Tomas Tranströmer, I feel when the air is even slightly rent, can sense a midnight snow on approach. Housing long, spiraling sentences by Brian Doyle and Hanif Abdurraqib means moving to the rhythms of rapture—a feeling worth chasing together.


I draw on these texts daily, not through photographic recall or in paragraphs spoken from memory. The interior library works through my hands and feet, impresses itself upon my tongue, sneaks into these sentences without me even knowing.


If I cannot bring you to these books, I’ll bring these books to you—and ask you to fling wide the doors of your own library—trusting we’re better off living in their light.




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