One of the more unexpected shifts in media habits during the pandemic, at least for me, has been a new interest in those little bird-box book libraries that inhabit front lawns in the quieter neighborhoods here. I regularly pass a dozen of them on a circuit of five or six miles around Santa Monica and Brentwood. Always, I stop to see what they’re offering. Sometimes, bag and sanitizer in hand, I’ll actually swap a book. (Most of the boxes are registered with Little Free Library, a nonprofit that assists the ‘librarians.’)
It’s a fascinating exercise, in that the books—from a crumbling Pocket Book edition of George Plimpton’s Out of My League, printed in 1967, to the hefty contemporary cookbooks at a stand-up shed in Santa Monica Canyon—turn out to be far more intellectually, culturally, and politically diverse than the current run of lawn signs, cable news or festival films.
Publicly, people in this neighborhood, which much of the entertainment community calls home, seem to move in a single direction. They are progressive, Democratic, and deeply preoccupied with the prevailing notions of social justice.
But more privately, they are all over the place. Or so their books would seem to say.
Oddly enough, in the tiny free libraries political books of every stripe manage to co-exist. Works by left-leaning David Plouffe, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton nest beside others by right-leaning Glenn Beck, Gregg Jarrett and Bill O’Reilly without incident. They don’t cancel, burn or push each other off the shelf. They just move back and forth among neighbors who sometimes see things differently from each other.
Even more interesting is the extraordinary range of topics in these little boxes. Right through the election cycle—when politics saturated television and the Internet—most books on the circuit were concerned with almost anything else.
To date, my favorite acquisition has been The Historical Dictionary of Upper Volta, published by one Daniel Miles McFarland in 1978. From it, I learned that in Upper Volta, now known as Burkina Faso, the Zerma were raiding and enslaving the Gourounsi up to and even beyond 1901, when the conquering French declared an end to forced servitude in their part of West Africa. Who knew?
Another favorite encounter: In a pick-up copy of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, an essay I had last read in 1970, I met some shockingly Post-Modern observations. Writing in 1859, Mill warned against what we would now call “cancel culture,” the urge to sever opponents from their jobs and social status. “Men might as well be imprisoned as excluded from the means of earning their bread,” he admonished.
In another prescient passage, Mill cautioned against a future in which automatic processes, the algorithm, might gain the upper hand. “Supposing it were possible to get housing built, corn grown, battles fought, causes tried, and even churches erected and prayers said, by machinery—by automatons in human form,” Mill wrote. Even then, he said, humanity, with all of its individual tics, must assert itself. “Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it.”
That was almost as interesting as a 600-page Lonely Planet travel guide to the Greek islands, or Jerzy Kosinki’s weird novel Blind Date, which included an alternative version of the Manson murders some forty years prior to Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.
Most fascinating of all, to me, is the notion that movie fans, and perhaps movie-makers, are picking through these miniature repositories of diverse thought and feeling. I’m virtually certain of it.
Occasionally, I’ve baited the boxes, particularly that larger shed in Santa Monica Canyon, where the likes of Christopher Isherwood and Peter Viertel used to walk, with film books. Faulkner’s MGM scripts. A 15-pound history of New Zealand cinema. An old screenwriter’s guide. Page proofs to Lynda Obst’s Hello, He Lied.
They disappear within a day. Restless minds, some of them cinematic, are feeding at these little shrines. And from that, something—maybe even a film—is bound to grow.