Whenever someone asks me what my favorite books are, I ask them if they need to catch a bus, because wherever they’re going, they’re going to be late. And yet despite whichever titles I am making my way through, or my literary flavor of the month, there are a few that stand out for more sentimental reasons than just the quality of the writing (although, trust me, these books are quality). And amongst those titles, I own very special copies of them.
- The Lies of Locke Lamora. My first copy was hardcover and sent to me by my best friend, James Kracker circa 2004. It’s the book that made me realize I could be a writer, because the kinds of stories I wanted to write were already being written. The first night I met Brigitte Winter, my fiance, we talked about this book. A paperback copy that I lent her to read still sits on our shelf, both our names written at the top of the first page. My hardcover copy bears Scott Lynch’s signature and a personal message. The night he signed it, he also gave me a draft of a story he was working on, which he read at KGB bar in New York. There’s a funny story there, but it’s for another time.
- The Hobbit. My family’s hand-me-down copy of Tolkien’s classic found its way into my bedroom when I was a kid. I tried reading it at eight years old, but couldn’t get through it. I finally stumbled through the opening chapters at age thirteen and I’ve been a huge Tolkien nerd ever since. I read that copy so much that the cover came off. The pages have become delicate and brittle, like the scrolls you read about in fantasy stories, found by intrepid adventurers amidst the bones of an unlucky forerunner. Then, last winter, Brigitte’s stepmother gave me her own leather-bound Easton Press copy of The Hobbit. She had seen me paging through it and admiring it at her house. That edition’s been out of print for many years. It has some of Tolkien’s own illustrations printed in it.
- The Crystal Shard. This book was my gateway into fantasy. I started in on the Forgotten Realms books at twelve years old when I came down with mono and was confined to the couch for a week. In the stoic, melancholy dark elf Drizzt, I found a kindred spirit. I spent most of my youth as one of the smallest, most sensitive kids in school and was endlessly, viciously bullied. Because Drizzt existed, I was never alone, and felt like someone out there knew what it was like to be seemingly universally despised by his peers. My original copy of this book, with the embossed cover and everything, I still own, though it is in bad shape: I let a careless friend borrow it and he treated it very roughly. Once, while visiting said friend’s apartment, I saw it discarded on the floor, stuck half-open and pinned under the bed. I then set about reclaiming it from his cat, who had taken a sudden malicious interest in it, only to find pages ripped and torn, the cover nearly shredded, the entire thing bent out of shape.
Paperbacks are not meant to last forever, and they accumulate a multitude of scars over their lifetimes. In this way, they are a little like us, I suppose. For this if nothing else, I love paperbacks. In the movie Memento, the protagonist’s wife can be seen in the flashbacks, poring over a paperback, the cover to which is missing, every page a dog ear, the book splayed open, the spine disintegrating. It was a fantastic detail.
For the last 18 months, I’ve been gathering paperbacks. I’ve been haunting used bookstores, picking through estate sales, attending book fairs. I’ve became an honorary (in my mind at least) Friend of the Library. And a few very generous friends have donated some of their old paperbacks. My bedroom looks like a miniature Powells. Bookshelves line every wall. Freestanding stacks sway ominously, threatening to topple and often making good on the promise.
There’s a method to my madness. I’m gathering all these books so I can launch a much-awaited project: The Paperback Project.
So, how does it work? In short…
- Gather great books
- Put art inspired by the books in the books
- Put a unique serial number and instructions on the books
- Distribute the books
My grand vision for the project looks a little like this: someone is waiting for an appointment somewhere. They look down and see a paperback book sitting on a chair next to them. On the cover of the book is a sticker which reads “This is a traveling book. Take it with you. Read it. Enjoy it. Inside, you’ll find a piece of art by a real artist who was inspired by the book. When you are done with it, please pass the book on. Give it to a friend or leave it somewhere for someone else to find. This book is a free book, and must not be sold.”
Surely, someone has never seen a book with that kind of message on it before! They pick the book up, read the first page, find the art inside somewhere, and take it home with them. Maybe they look that artist up on their webpage, see what other pieces they’ve done. Maybe they tell some friends about the book, the art, the experience.
Then they notice the serial number inside and a website, so they go to the website and put the serial number in and BAM! They are presented with a map detailing the travels of that book. That particular book started in a bus stop in Baltimore, was taken on a bus ride to Huntsville, was found again in a restaurant there, made a couple stops amongst friends in town, stayed for a few weeks in a Little Free Library on someone’s front lawn, was picked up, flew to Laguna Beach on a vacation, and then was found inside a surf shop there, and so on. Folks have left comments on the website about where they found the book, what it meant to them, whether they liked it. Maybe these people talk to each other about the book. Maybe two people fall in love (oh my!) over the book. Maybe someone is inspired to write. Maybe someone is inspired to make art. Maybe someone is introduced to a new genre. At the very least, someone is reading.
Mission. The Paperback Project aims to do four things:
- To put books into the hands of folks who want them, for free
- To create unique works of art out of common, mass-produced objects
- To present the idea of non-attachment to a wide audience in a meaningful way
- To invite participation in a game of “artistic telephone”
This was my little dream. So I set about to do it all on my own. As a printmaker using traditional methods of carving and block printing, I would carve the author or something from the book, and print it on a blank space somewhere. It’s been, um, slow going.
Challenges. The first problem I encountered was that I can only work so fast. It takes a lot of time to create one of my pieces and hand-print. So the PBP was limited by time. The second problem I ran into was that I’m doing this out of pocket. I have been primarily buying the books for this project instead of getting them donated, and it’s not like I have a grant to do this. The project was further limited by money and availability then. The third problem was that the project seemed like it was bigger than just me. Sure, I love to put my own art out there, but I believe in bigger things than that. I wanted to support other artists as well. I wanted other printmakers and illustrators to print and draw in the books they loved. Limited again by participation.
So. This. Is. My. Call.
- If you have paperbacks, we’ll take any books donated.
- If you’re an artist, we want you to put art in those books.
- If you’re a web designer or programmer, we want your help to design a website.
- If you like this idea and want to volunteer your time, we want you to help us build homes for those books and/or distribute the books.
- If you’re a graphic artist, we want you to design a simple logo.
- Contact us at email@example.com and let us know how you’d like to be involved
Ideally, we want the books that people really love, that they have a connection to. We want the comment threads attached to each book on the website to start off with “I donated this book because…” We want to know the stories behind those particular copies, those unique items. And if the website proves too big a task to handle, I’ll be satisfied just to know that books are leaving people’s dusty bookshelves (no pun intended), and going off on grand adventures, to be read and discovered by a whole new crowd of folks. Maybe the story of that book won’t be captured on a website, but in the margins, on postcards stuck between the pages, on the back of a polaroid serving as a bookmark.
Dustin, why do you want to do this? In the President’s most recent budget proposal, funding for vital programs has been cut, such as for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). There is nothing any one person can do which will offset these grievous and intentional blows to the arts, health, and science, should funding indeed be cut. We shouldn’t be cutting funding for the arts and education at all; we should be giving those programs more funding. For now, we will need to oppose these drastic and deadly measures together. And it is a more important time than ever to engage in small acts of resistance and support for the arts.
Books have had an enormous impact on my life. They have played a part in my childhood, my maturity, my education, my career, my relationships. Even if they haven’t for you, personally, please believe me when I say that they do for many, many people. Words have power.