The other day at the local recycling center I spotted a stack of boxes filled with discarded law books.
It was a small mountain of trashed tomes. There were elegant Restatements of the Law, finely-bound Southeastern Reporters and what appeared to be an entire set of North Carolina General Statutes. All the law you would ever need.
On the inside cover of each volume was an ex libris stamp that had once identified the owner, but the name was blacked out. I pictured someone in a law office pulling books off a shelf and – with Sharpie poised – erasing all evidence of origin before hauling them out here to join unwanted toaster ovens and exercise bikes and puzzles with pieces missing.
Back in the day we called places like this the dump. But here the large sign said Orange County Solid Waste Convenience Center, and a smaller one said “Re-Use Facility – Help Yourself.”
And people were doing just that, poring through items as if at a yard sale, carrying perfectly good vases, lamps and ironing boards back to the cars.
But nobody went near the law books – except a young boy of five or six.
“Look how strong I am,” he said, hoisting a Martindale-Hubbell digest over his head.
“Such big muscles,” I said.
This pleased him, and with an oof he threw the heavy book to the ground.
The Sweetness of Literature
I have always loved books. I enjoy reading them of course. But I also like to look at them, and hold them, and pile them beside my bed.
They say books make a room. But I would go further and say they make a life.
Growing up in Kingstree, South Carolina I could see the Carnegie Public Library from our front porch. Just beyond it was the Anderson Theater, and a few blocks in the other direction was the ballfield. Those three ingredients – books, movies and baseball – shaped my youth.
Each summer the library held a reading challenge for kids. For every ten books you read, you’d win a prize, which – miraculously, incredibly, unbelievably – was either a movie pass or a bag of candy.
Can you imagine what would happen today if someone gave out paper sacks of unwrapped candy to children as prizes? Lawsuits would be filed faster than you can say Prosser on Torts.
But I ate it up. Literally. On a good day, I could tear through ten books before closing time. Then I would either stroll over to the cinema or savor a sweet treat. Sometimes both at once. It was hard candy, sure, but it was still candy. And it was free.
Even more spectacularly, you could keep winning as long as you kept reading. The sky was the limit. All you had to do was fill out a little form listing the books you’d read. Your signature didn’t even have to be notarized.
And unlike my brother – who was a year older but cheated by racing through the likes of Dr. Seuss and Harold and the Purple Crayon – I earned my candy honestly, by reading real books, from cover to cover.
Along the way, I met the Hardy Boys and Hercule Poirot. I discovered that L. Frank Baum had written a whole series of Oz adventures. And I sat enthralled through countless B-westerns and horror schlock from Cannon Studios.
And though I developed a mild sugar addiction that I still struggle with, I would have to say those hours spent in that red brick library were some of the best of my life.
Standing Tall on the Law
For a wild moment that morning at the dump – excuse me, the Solid Waste Convenience Center – I considered loading up those law books and taking them home. But what on earth would I do with half a ton of outdated editions of Corbin on Contracts, Norton on Bankruptcy and The Law of Industrial Hygiene?
“Look at me!”
The little boy had stacked several books and was standing proudly on top of them like a miniature statue.
“I’m bigger than you!”
It had started drizzling. The child’s mother was calling him to go. I looked at him, smiling and happy on a pedestal of legal scholarship, surrounded by stuff others no longer wanted, his arms upraised in triumph, his future as bright as his shining eyes.
this post originally appeared in the March issue of our Put Into Practice newsletter