For Grade 12 last year, Elliot Chandler had to come up with a project that would benefit his community. He landed on building one of those little libraries you often see on residential streets. It was an on-brand idea; his mother, Leslie Hurtig, is the artistic director of the Vancouver Writers Fest. He and his dad built it, erected it outside the fence of their Vancouver home, and the little library has thrived ever since: Books are donated, books are picked up. The contents are always in flux, with a wide range of reading material on offer.
So on Sunday morning, Hurtig was shocked when she noticed what was on the shelves: The random books that had been there the previous night were gone. They had been replaced by stacks of copies of a pocket-sized New Testament and Psalms. Each was wrapped in plastic.
“I was disheartened, but it didn’t surprise me for some reason,” Hurtig recalled on Tuesday.
“It’s a bit exasperating to know that there are people out there who want all of us to fall in line behind their belief systems.”
These libraries can be found all over the place, a few shelves with see-through doors where people can deposit books they no longer want and grab something else they are interested in reading. The Wisconsin-based Little Free Library organization reports there are more than 150,000 of these libraries in more than 100 countries, sharing more than 70 million books each year. (And that only accounts for the libraries that are officially part of its network.) On average, according to the organization, one book is shared in a Little Free Library every day.
From Vancouver on Sunday, Hurtig tweeted about what had happened to her family’s little library. She instantly started hearing from authors across Canada – including Tara Moss and David A. Robertson, who offered to bring or send copies of their books to restock the shelves. B.C.-based children’s author Robin Stevenson replied on Twitter that she had to leave a note inside her little library asking people not to leave religious propaganda. Hurtig also heard from U.S. authors.
Then she started getting more political DMs from strangers in the U.S. who were upset about the Bible drop-offs. This incident in Vancouver was resonating with Americans feeling under attack by their own institutions, in particular after Friday’s overturning by the U.S. Supreme Court of the Roe v. Wade ruling on abortion.
“People are reading this as connected to the attacks that are happening now on everything from rights for women to the safety of the LGBTQ community to the rise of state-sanctioned gun violence in the United States,” Hurtig says. “This little story seemed to have really resonated with them as having their rights infringed upon and having the Christian right push their beliefs on everyone, whether they want it or not.”
She pointed to a recent news story that public libraries in Canada have been hit by homophobic taunts and threats of violence in response to family-friendly drag storytelling events being offered.
“Everything that’s happening south of the border is bleeding into our country here,” Hurtig says.
As her tweet was going viral on Sunday, Hurtig got to work. She removed all but one of the bibles, took off the plastic wrapping and recycled them. She started restocking the shelves with books from her home. Selections included Jen Gunter’s The Vagina Bible and an illustrated book for young readers called Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be by another Canadian author, Daniel Loxton.
Neighbours joined in with contributions – including their own literary counterpoints. One dropped off a copy of The Second Coming: Sent from Heaven … Raising Hell by John Niven, with an illustration of a Christ-like figure on the cover, his arms wrapped around an electric guitar rather than a cross. (“Confrontational, blasphemous … and bloody funny” reads a blurb on the cover.)
By late that day, the little library had been restocked and was back in business. (Hurtig notes that The Vagina Bible was one of the first books to go out again.)
On Tuesday afternoon, the library was still thriving. Someone had dropped off an envelope of homemade bookmarks. Books on offer included Jonathan Lethem’s Amnesia Moon, Merilyn Simonds’s The Holding and Nobody’s Baby But Mine by romance novelist Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Also a book called Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys.
The one copy of the New Testament and Psalms that Hurtig had left in the little library remained.
A couple of days after her biblical discovery, Hurtig was reflecting on what this incident seemed to be saying about current events.
“As angry as it has made some people – and I’m noticing that a lot of them are the ones who are being deeply affected by Supreme Court decisions in the United States and rights being eroded – the flipside of that is the many lovely responses about community and the importance of reading and the importance of libraries in community,” Hurtig says. “Those are all quite heart-warming and are a good sign for society.”
Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.