The sign just inside the doors of Surrey City Centre Library was small enough, or strange enough, that most of the patrons who’d been waiting outside filed right past it without noticing.
Human Library – Open Today
The Surrey Library, in a bedroom community of Vancouver, British Columbia, is a just-opened Modernist gem, and it has all of the things you’d expect in a library — books and magazines and scores of multimedia options — plus one rare new thing: a small collection of “human books” that you can “sign out” for 30 minutes at a time.
Human books are, simply, people. They are volunteers who have made themselves available to the public as stories. They were chosen because they have something unique to say and a compelling way of saying it, and because they reflect the cultural diversity of the community. Theirs are stories that – because they don’t involve vampires or boy wizards or ladies’ detective agencies— might otherwise be lost in the blockbuster-or-nothing climate of today’s publishing world.
The “books” sat at tables, waiting for readers. About half of them were mustered in a big room. Beside each was a glass of water, a timer and a little box of breath mints. (Aesthetes might argue that printed books “breathe” – and indeed the subtle smell of paper and glue is a crucial part of the reading experience that’ll be lost when we all go fully digital. But actual bad breath would surely be a bringdown for any reader.) One book stood out. It wore a vest bearing a sign in thick black block letters: I AM A BOOK.
The vested man was named Abdifatah. He had an easy smile and red-rimmed eyes – the badge of new-fatherhood. Abdifatah was a Somali who had fled that country’s civil war in the mid-1990s and resettled in Canada. His story was ostensibly about “the refugee experience,” but after checking him out, I discovered that title barely scratched the surface.
You don’t read a human book the way you read a regular book. The exchange, in principle, is more like a dialogue. “Ask any question that occurs to you,” Ravi Basi, the project’s co-coordinator, put it, by way of instruction. But once Abdi got rolling, I didn’t dare interrupt him. Around 10 minutes in, the poetic heart of his breathtaking tale emerged.
When Abdifatah was 11 years old, growing up amid widening chaos in Mogadishu, he and his older brother were kidnapped and held for months by rebel soldiers. The boys were forced into servitude, doing chores like making meals and laundering bloodstained clothes. It was corrosive stuff for a child, and Abdifatah’s brother was determined to protect Abdifatah from the worst of it. He would soften the nightmarish edges of day-to-day life by confabulating stories that sanitized the truth.
“He’d make it like a fairy tale,” Abdifatah said. “He would say, ‘They’re hunting animals – that’s how the blood got on these clothes!’” Abdifatah’s brother kept the boy’s spirits up, day after day. It became clear that this human book wasn’t really about a young African man’s transition to Western culture, as advertised. It was about brotherly love.
It is the responsibility of a community to protect its stories, or so an anthropologist might argue. It is the responsibility of human beings to step into each other’s shoes on a regular basis; so a philosopher might argue. Those are both reasons why we read books – but not the only ones. We read to confirm our biases. We read to bore deeper into an area of interest. Sometimes, as Basi says, we read to “challenge ourselves” with a book that relates experiences or beliefs that oppose our own.
That, indeed, was the founding principle of the first-ever human library experiment, launched a dozen years ago in Denmark after a tragic event. A young man had been stabbed in a nightclub, and five of his friends were grasping for answers. Violence, they concluded, is a product of ignorance and misunderstanding; it melts in light. So if potential adversaries could sit down with each other – the book and its hostile reader, so to speak – anger and mistrust could be defused. The project was born. One of its first “books’ was a policeman, and one of his first readers was a graffiti artist.
Since then, a handful of other human-library experiments have sprung up here and there (notably in Australia) each nodding to the original concept, but broadening it to embrace other, less political areas of reader interest.
After the timer on Abdifatah’s desk buzzed, signaling my time with him was up, I thanked him and moved, a little stunned, out into the main stacks. By this time more readers had found their way to the human library. One was a man who had just come to drop off a book, and then coincidentally discovered a kindred spirit in a human book named Sara Grant, the mother of an autistic boy. He promptly signed her out, and the two settled in to a quietly intense discussion. (The man’s grandson is autistic; he had done a lot of reading on the subject, but had spoken to precious few people in similar circumstances.)
Giddily, I started signing out other human books. One was about “laughing yoga,” by a teacher of that emerging discipline. Another concerned an East-Asian woman named Anita who had remained defiantly single, despite her parents’ best efforts to marry her off. A third was about the world of competitive crossword puzzling, told by an international champion. All of my books were chatty and unguarded – qualities of temperament that the organizers selected for. At least one book, Anita, was unaware of how great a premise she was, and unsure if she’d make a compelling read. “I was kind of worried no one would check me out,” she admitted. More than once I thought: This is the real thing, a tale told around the primitive fire.
Moving from table to table felt like literary speed dating. But my mind kept returning to Abdifatah and his brother. I confess I can’t tell you the brother’s name. I forgot to ask, and now it’s too late. There’s no going back to Abdifatah to check.
Unless I renew him.
Bruce Grierson is the author of U-Turn: What If You Woke Up One Morning and Realized You Were Living the Wrong Life? (Bloomsbury USA)