Lost and Found: On Reading Books from the Street

I don’t know if it’s typical for Norwich, but the people here tend to leave items they no longer need on their doorstep for interested passers-by to collect. Accompanied by a note – usually stating “free to a good home” or something to that effect – books, clothes, toys and furniture sit patiently alongside the road waiting for their new owners. If that doesn’t do the trick, Norwichians will actively start to offer their unwanted junk to unsuspecting neighbours. Mere days after first moving to the city back in 2012, I was stopped by two men in a white van who asked if I was interested in a mattress. I politely declined. They moved on. I have no doubt they originally found someone who was in dire need of whatever other junk they were trying to get rid of.

With lockdown continuing – though its ending is now in sight – charity shops and recycling plants have only recently started to reopen. The result is an ever-greater variety of items appearing on the pavement. I personally don’t need toys, furniture or clothes, but with the library not opening until the 6th of July, books always tend to catch my eye. One recent walk was particularly productive: I staggered home with no less than seven books in my backpack and in my arms.

So what did I find? The first catch was Divine Madness by Robert Muckamore, a young adult spy thriller (actually number five in a series, but beggars can’t be choosers). Having recently read a young adult novel which really got on my nerves, because it displayed all the features that tend to make young adult novels naff (underdeveloped whiny characters, a poor plot, and cringe-worthy dialogues), this book was a breath of fresh air. Granted, the initially fast-paced plot began to drag a bit towards the end, but a dull Saturday was significantly brightened by this book.

I also found two new Russian friends: The Cossacks by Leo Tolstoy and Fathers and Children by Ivan Turgenev. I’m halfway through the former and have to admit that I find it a tad boring, but perhaps I just need to adapt to a slower pace after my previous read. And coming from Penguin’s Everyman Library, both books are a joy to behold: hardcovers bound in dark red cloth with cream-coloured dust jackets to protect their delicate spines. Plus, I look like an intellectual when I read them in public, which is always a bonus.

Next up is Perelandra by C.S. Lewis, of whom I’ve never read anything beyond The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I’m quite excited about this science fiction novel set on Venus. Ever since reading Tonke Dragt’s Torenhoog en Mijlen Breed as a child, I have fantasized about this planet, despite knowing that it is in fact a searingly hot hell rather than an Eden-like paradise. And anyone dedicating a book to “Some ladies at Wantage” is bound to catch my attention.

Looking back, I have to admit I became a bit greedy at this point. When I noticed three gargantuan Taschen volumes on the art of Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse and Gustav Klimt, I had to have them. Never mind that they wouldn’t fit into my already bulging backpack and I had to hold them in my arms like oddly flat babies. Never mind the heat which, this close to noon, was becoming unbearable. I had decided to carry them home and carry them home I did. It was worth it, though: the Klimt book in particular conjures up happy memories of last year’s trip to Vienna, where Klimt lived, worked, and hung with the ladies.

While the current situation remains less than ideal – and I’m not even talking about its continuing impact on public health – it’s enjoyable to hunt for books and discover writers and titles I wouldn’t normally consider. Not having an endless supply of books has forced me to become creative and source books from unusual places – from friends and colleagues, random strangers, and now the sunny side of the street. While I wish the world would go back to normal sooner rather than later, I intend to maintain the sense of wonder and resourcefulness the past few months have demanded, and will keep my eyes open for lost books in need of a good home.

Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash


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