A Paperback Cenotaph
Sharing my Uncle With the World Through His Books
On June 4, 2009, my Uncle Cal died from skin cancer at my parents’ home in Calgary, AB. He had been diagnosed about a year before and had spent the last few weeks before his death living in my parents’ house.
We had a family dinner the night before and although he didn’t eat much, I remember him enjoying the time with the family.
Later that evening, my Dad and I helped him upstairs to bed. He never woke up.
It was a kind death, especially for a disease that is often cruel.
For someone who had, at times, struggled through life, it was a blessing that he was able to die at home of family, rather than a hospice or hospital.
It is still tragic and unfair that he was taken at a relatively young 53.
Following his death I inherited his collection of books. Almost all were paperback novels, mostly science fiction and fantasy but from a range of other genres.
There were just shy of 700 books in his collection.
This also only represented a small sample of the literature he had enjoyed over the course of his life, a motley collection of some of his favourites, his recent reading material and those books he probably had intended to take to a used book store.
Uncle Cal was a voracious reader, a trait that runs in both sides of my family and given our shared love of science fiction, I was the logical choice to receive them. Some of the books I received, I had given to him as gifts.
It was a treasure trove of classic era books, but when all was said and done, I had a large number of books in boxes I wasn’t sure what to do with.
It would be a few years till the answer came to me, with much of his collection of books languishing in storage. I had read many of them but with my own collection I had a lot of books and a living situation that prevented bookshelves for all of them.
I had some notions about giving away some of them but nothing had firmly come to mind.
If I did give them away though, there were two considerations that were top of mind: 1. that they would have a good chance of being read & 2. that those who read them would know whose books they had been.
It was fall of 2013 when the inspirations struck. It was the day of municipal election and I had decided to walk to the polling station. While I was walking home, I noticed a house across the street had what looked like a very large, stylized bird house. However, it wasn’t anywhere near a tree and was mounted on a post by the sidewalk, at roughly waist height.
I was curious as to what it was, so I crossed the street to take a look.
When I got closer I was able to see that it had a windowed door on the front and a sign on the bottom that said: “Little Free Library” with a number and web address. Inside I could see two neat shelves of books.
The window even had a brief explanatory note taped inside inviting me to take a book or to leave one. I did and then I googled Little Free Library on my iPhone as I resumed walking home.
I have to admit, I was surprised that I hadn’t come across the concept of Little Free Libraries before that moment.
As someone with an interest in community building and urban development, this movement is one that I would have thought I would have been aware of much sooner.
But the moment I saw it, I knew that these Little Free Libraries offered me an avenue to share my Uncle’s books with others.
Shortly after that, Calgary Reads, a local charity devoted to advancing literacy, began a program to encourage the creation of Little Free Libraries, with the result that lots more started popping up from one end of town to the other.
I had been thinking I would build a Little Free Library in my Uncle’s memory and then stock it with the books I had from him. That would leave a lot of books, that would be waiting in storage for their day in the Little Free Library.
The following winter and spring of 2014 I participated in a program put on by the local United Way, called Urban Exposure, which provided me with an opportunity to see much of Calgary in new and different ways.
We toured social services and social enterprises and unique neighbourhoods across the city and also learned about photography as well as philanthropy. It also gave me an opportunity to watch these Little Free Libraries begin to multiply across the city.
Now, with the proliferation of boxes of mass literacy across the city, I had something else that I could do:
Drop off his books at Little Free Libraries all around town.
It’s taken a while for everything to come together, for this project to start happening. Life sometimes gets in the way.
Cataloguing everything, making sure I found everything I wanted to keep and knowing what I had to give away. Some of his books, unfortunately were in bad shape and unsalvageable.
Still at the end of that process, I find I have 529 books to give away.
Since autumn of last year I’ve been dropping off a few books at various Little Free Libraries across Calgary, as opportunities have arisen.
I’ve launched a webpage www.calhope.ca to share my progress on this project and to tell people about my Uncle’s life.
I’ve also been given books by others to give away in my Uncle’s name, as a part of this project. Recent contributions of additional books has given me more than 130 books over and above those from my Uncle’s collection. I’m confident I’ll soon have even more, leading me to set a goal of giving away at least 1000 books total in my Uncle’s name.
With this project now well under way and a chance to reflect upon it, I can’t think of a better tribute to his life.
Yet as much as I want to see these books read and and shared, it is difficult to let them go. During the difficult times in his life, books were undoubtedly one of his biggest sources of solace and comfort.
Like me, I am quite certain he had recurring bouts of clinical depression, and during my own struggles, books have been a place of refuge for me.
Indeed, in dealing with a challenging mental illness, this has been a small bit of good fortune we shared, as one very common effect of depression is to lose the ability and concentration to enjoy reading for pleasure.
But knowing this, it makes it a bit harder to part with them, even though I know they will see many more readers this way.
At the time of this writing, nearly 200 books have gone out, mostly to Little Free Libraries around Calgary but also some in Vancouver, BC and with plans to drop some in Edmonton and other places as the opportunities arise.
With the contributions by others added to those from my Uncle’s collection, I still have nearly 500 books in my possession to give away, despite handing out nearly 200 already.
A Little Free Library is still being planned, hopefully for this summer once a suitable site to host it is found, hopefully in his old neighbourhood.
In the course of this I’ve visited many of Calgary’s Little Free Libraries (nearly 50 now) but there are still many, many more here and in other places for me to visit.
It’s far from being the most traditional of memorials but I think it suits someone who loved books; that those words he enjoyed are now being scattered to (hopefully) many others who will enjoy them for a long time yet.
Visit www.calhope.ca for more information about the Cal Hope Memorial Project, including status updates.
Updates can also be followed on my Instagram account: HopeExposure
Twitter: All your tweet belong to us. You should follow me @jackshope.