The allure of free stuff

Growing up I recall people frequently saying that Sri Lankans would take anything if it were given to them free, including a cold. It turns out that Sri Lankans may not be the only ones who are drawn irresistibly to free things. Dan Greenstone, a lover of books and the possessor of many, has a hilarious article about what happened with his wife’s gift to him of a Little Free Library, a concept to increase literacy that is popular in many neighborhoods, where people set up a box in a public place stocked with books where any passerby can take a book and replace it with another.

Greenstone says that the problem is that while people are quite willing to take books, any books, as long as they are free, giving back a book is something else entirely.

Little Free Library has a seductive marketing slogan that’s carved into the top of every unit: “Take a Book; Return a Book.” Such a simple equation. And such wishful thinking. Take? Oh, absolutely. People are, in fact, really good at that part. For example there was the young mom who lifted her toddler up to the box, watching uncritically as he scooped up “Imaginary Homelands,” Salman Rushdie’s collection of criticism and essays. Which I’m sure he enjoyed.

After finding his personal stock of books running low, Greenstone took to looking for sources at book sales and among his friends for the most boring books he could find to see if they would go as quickly as quality fare. And they did.

So imagine my surprise when, within 24 hours, a paper-bound copy of “Study Guide and Reference Material for Commercial Radio Operator’s’ Examination” (1955! edition) had vanished. 1965’s evergreen “Technical Analysis of Stock Trends” was next. “Aircraft Power Plants from Northrop Aeronautical” lasted just a few more days. And the winner of our boringest book contest? “Standard Mathematical Tables,” 22nd Edition, a nearly wordless and entirely incomprehensible collection of graphs, made it a week.

Okay, neighbors, I thought. You gonna troll me? Come correct.

Out with the Chabons, the Franzens and the Morrisons. Goodbye to the Booker and Pulitzer winners. Ruthless pragmatism became my m.o. Grimly, I took to scouring yard sales and recycling bins for dull books, just another soulless middle manager, firming up his supply chain and moving product.

And it drove home another lesson: Not only was I not a librarian, I wasn’t even really dealing in reading material. That the objects in our Little Free Library happened to be books was beside the point. The salient fact was that the items were free. We may as well, I suspected, have been offering plastic spoons, Allen wrenches and facial tissue. I tested this hypothesis by mixing in non-book items including an instructional DVD on how to use an exercise ball, and a few packets of echinacea seeds.

All of it went.

At least his library wasn’t repeatedly vandalized like this one was. I just don’t understand people who would do such a thing.

But there is another aspect to this. In many neighborhoods people leave old furniture, toys, and other stuff they don’t need near the curb so that they can be taken by passersby who may have a use for them. I am told that when nobody takes something, it sometimes helps to pin a sign to it giving a nominal price and asking the taker to put the money in the mailbox or some such honor system. The item tends to quickly disappear with no money being offered in exchange.

Apparently some people don’t like to take stuff that has no value but will steal that same stuff if they think it has some.

I suspect that people who take something without paying when they are not supposed to have a different moral code from the people who take stuff that, like with the Little Free Library, is advertised as quasi-free and are expected to replace it with another book. Taking a book without replacing it seems more like borrowing and the taker may do so with the intention of giving a book back later but then omitting to do so. With the Little Free Library, it may be that if you put a sign on it that asked people to leave even a nickel for each book they take and take a nickel for each book they leave, they would be more circumspect about taking books without replacing them.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely (author of the excellent book Predictably Irrational) has recounted his experiments where if you leave cans of soda in an office break room, they tend to disappear, but if you leave small equivalent amounts of money, no one takes it. People seem to view taking the soda as more like sharing and not stealing. Ariely says that these and other experiments reveal that it is important for us to have self-images of being honorable people and that we will do things that can be rationalized away so as enable us to preserve that self-image but will not do so with actions that cannot be so rationalized.


  1. says

    What does it say when a community has no sense of community?

    Where I live, a group of expats recently organized a Little Free Library at a coffee shop willing to host it. We did it because the local public library has scant few books in English and none in other languages, and there are no second hand book shops. It’s easier and faster than trading books between individuals.

    It’s early days, but there are no problems thus far. Ours has a sign out and sign in sheet, which seems to help. Most people don’t take books out, they stay in and read them, plus it has helped the coffee shop’s business.

  2. Mano Singham says

    Maybe the fact that it is inside a coffee shop helps, in that it creates the sense of a more intimate community.

  3. Owlmirror says

    It occurs to me that if people were taking books for reasons other than reading them, they might feel less guilty if the books were obviously boring ones that most people would not want to read.

    Alternate non-reading uses for books that I can think of include toilet paper, rolling paper, unfortunately compulsive hoarding, and perhaps most intriguingly, book sculpture and art.

  4. Owlmirror says

    Of course, there’s also firestarter, and fuel…

    And some book collectors might not care so much about the contents of the book, but rather express interest in the craft that went into making them: the quality of the paper; the binding; the stitching; the endpapers; the typography; the rare work of a particular publisher. In agreement with what Marcus suggested, those qualities might well make them worth something on E-bay, rather than the contents.

  5. DonDueed says

    I would have taken the book on Northrop power plants. Maybe even the math tables.

    I’d like to think I would have brought back a book or two later, though.

  6. Reginald Selkirk says

    There are at least two “little free libraries” within walking distance of my home.

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