Can't resist a cart of free books

Be on time to class – or look through free books? The answer was clear.

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    Engrossed: A girl takes her time at the annual Friends of Waco McLennan County Library book sale in Waco, Texas.
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I have been asking myself lately if it's possible that I have a problem – an inability to resist free books. For me, there's almost something magical about them. Three recent incidents come to mind.

There was the library's used-book sale a few Saturdays ago. As my wife and two children were ferreting through books on sale for 25 cents, 50 cents, and a dollar, I stood immobilized in front of a cart of books with a big, handwritten Free sign attached to it.

I was considering almost everything on the cart: books about flowers and diet – books I knew I wouldn't read. I was even giving a second thought to a book by a radical political figure whose views I disagree with.

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I must have spent 10 minutes in front of that cart of free books before emerging with just five (an Alice Walker novel included) and moving on to help my family look through the books we'd placed on a nearby table.

We had to decide on the keepers and the ones we'd return to the shelves. We walked out of the library with about 25 books and paid only $7 for them. Not bad.

But I cherish the five free ones most of all.

The second incident occurred when I had barely enough time for lunch before my next class at the community college where I teach. I had forgotten to bring the small lunch I'd packed.

Eschewing the cafeteria food on this day, I decided to call ahead to a restaurant and order a chicken Caesar salad to go.

On my way to pick up the salad, I drove past an adult learning center and saw an unmistakable and familiar sign: Free Books. And there were four or five carts of books sitting outside the building.

It would be nice, I thought – really wonderful – to look these over, but I simply didn't have the time. I drove past, but two blocks later stopped my car.

I weighed the possibility of being late for class versus forever losing out on the opportunity to look over this batch of free books that sat undisturbed and alone outside on this gorgeous day. No contest, I decided.

I walked the two blocks back and stayed as long as possible before I had to pick up my salad and try to make class on time. My memorable finds included a bestselling book on modern culture, a book of tennis trivia, and a James Joyce classic.

The last occurrence with me and books has been ongoing. This summer, the furniture and carpet in our offices will be replaced. So huge boxes with "Book Drive" printed on them have been placed in our hallways. The notion, I think, is that some teachers might be tempted to throw away books as they prepare to pack and move their belongings.

Now these boxes are filling up with all kinds of unwanted tomes. And when no one is looking, like a kid staring into a cookie jar, I can't help but stop and peer curiously and longingly over the boxes' sides at all these books.

I am intrigued by what kinds of books people so freely give away. Day after day, I keep stopping and looking to see what's been added from the previous day.

I've even reached into the boxes and flipped through quite a few: books on relationships, a book of New Zealand poetry, a book devoted solely to poems about Shakespeare, and a signed copy of a textbook written by a fine colleague who left the school years ago. I even borrowed one book for a night and put it back in the box the next day.

It's a good thing for me that these books aren't free. I figure that once someone puts them into one of the boxes, they become the property of whomever set up the book drive. If they were free for the taking, I would never finish up for the semester and be able to move on to my summer reading.

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