In the gardens of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, stands a little wooden cabinet with a glass door, filled with books, and with the words “Little Free Library” painted on the front. Anyone can take books from this cabinet, and anyone is also welcome to leave books there that they no longer want. I used to walk past it every time I went to see my friend at the college, and it always made me smile.
I had assumed that this was an independent initiative of the college (Cambridge is full of quirks like that), so imagine my surprise when I stumbled accross an identical one right in the middle of Samara! I stopped to take a photo of it, only to realise my camera was out of battery. As I was doing so, I suddenly realised that someone was standing behind me, watching me. I turned around, somewhat embarrassed, to see a man, probably in his mid-forties.
Being English, and therefore perpetually awkward, I apologised and explained my behaviour, and we got talking. Sergei Alexandrovich is a literature fanatic – in ten minutes or so, he walked me through his personal interpretations of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, spoke about the difficulties of translating Pushkin, and explained his deep love of Lermontov. He also explained to me why a person cannot be complete until they have studied both yoga and philosophy (it’s to do with creating and controlling your own worldview).
I was expected somewhere, so I couldn’t stay long, but Sergei Alexandrovich asked me for my name and phone number so we could stay in touch. My sense of self-preservation kicked in here and so when I declined to give him my number, he pointed out his flat accross the road, had me memorise the address, and made me promise to drop by. At that, he went home and I promptly marched off in the wrong direction, causing me to be late for my meeting anyway. But that’s another story for another time.
In England, Russians are often perceived as closed and unfriendly. I have always found the opposite to be the case, and I think this unexpected encounter stands to prove that. True, in certain “official” circumstances – shops, banks, on public transport – people can be very curt. But as soon as there’s a talking point – in this case, a little free library – most Russians I’ve met have been open, warm and interesting.
It’s hard to imagine a stranger on the streets of any big city in the UK stopping to discuss literature. Maybe it’s unusual here too. But it certainly was interesting.
I doubt I will stop by Sergei Alexandrovich’s flat, but I will definitely return to the Little Free Library – even if it’s only to take that photograph!
(Incidentally, I’ve since learnt that Little Free Libraries exist all over the world, and that the project started in the USA. You can even see a map with all of the libraries marked on it, although for some reason Samara isn’t there: