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David Bouchier: Fair Exchange

Stephanie S. from Pixabay

Our favorite French village has no bookstore, but we can never run out of books. We benefit from a charming custom called Livres en ballade or books on the move that provides a kind of perpetual open air circulating library.

It works like this. A few small stores and private houses have set up bookshelves out front, usually beside the door. On these shelves books are scattered in a disorganized mass, so passersby can browse the titles, and simply take anything they like. There is an unspoken understanding that, for every book taken, another should be put in its place but nobody takes this too seriously.

This kind of accidental library offers two particular pleasures, quite apart from its cheapness. First, there are the books you would never have read if you hadn't found them there. Then there are the books you would never read under any circumstances, but which give a fascinating and sometimes disturbing insight into the minds of the people who bought them. Why do so many people in a quiet French village want to read about psychopathic sexual killers? The popularity of this kind of sordid melodrama suggests that Freud must have been right about something – but what?

At the other end of the cultural scale how does it happen that so many people in the same unpretentious village are reading deep into the most intellectual backwaters of literature and philosophy? Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Michel Houellebecq appear with disturbing frequency. An impossibly difficult book by an impossibly difficult German philosopher, Hegel, once appeared on a shelf. Next time I looked it was gone. What casual passerby thought that this would be a good summer read?

Most of the offerings are less exotic, and give a more reassuring insight into our neighbors’ tastes, and perhaps their lives – cookbooks, diet and exercise books, popular psychology, sex manuals - they all vanish and reappear a few weeks later on another shelf in another part of the village.

We were clearing out the house last summer and decided to add our surplus books to this literary carousel. The only problem was that we wanted no books in exchange, because our shelves were full. So we arranged them by the front door with a sign simply saying “Free.” They vanished in an astonishingly short time, apart from a 796 page biography of an obscure English mystic, which lingered by the door for a long while before being scooped up by a passing Belgian cyclist.

This seems to me like a thoroughly admirable system for sharing the cultural wealth. You contribute a little, other people contribute a little, and everybody benefits. It’s not much like capitalism – in fact it’s not capitalism at all – but it works.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.