A year ago I had a book problem.
In particular, I had nowhere to put them. I’m a New York City tenant, not a Disney princess. There are no floor-to-ceiling bookshelves with sliding ladders that I can hang from, singing about the last blast of a novel I’ve read. I used to always carry a box of books to my mom’s house when I ran out of space on my rickety Ikea bookshelf. But when she got sick, I promised myself I’d make do with less.
Easy to solve, right? Buy an e-reader. Thousands of books on one lightweight device. All the E Ink glory my decrepit eyes can handle. Problem solved? Yes and no. I have a Kindle Paperwhite, but I’m cheap. Despite being intangible, ebooks are generally more expensive than paperbacks. Plus, browsing Amazon doesn’t have the same magic as wandering through a bookstore.
What I wanted was the convenience of an e-reader with the management of a bookstore. If it could be as affordable as a library without forcing this pajama gremlin to go outside, all the better. I sent this exact story to a fellow bookworm a while ago. When I finished kvetchen she texted back three words. “Just download Libby.”
What I wanted was the convenience of an e-reader with the management of a bookstore
For the uninitiated, Libby is a free (!) library app powered by OverDrive. You can borrow or keep all kinds of magazines and books in your local libraries. (Several!) All you need is a library card. For some libraries, you can enter your phone number in the Libby app to get one. If you don’t know what to read, you can browse curated recommendations. It’s not like those sticky notes you find in a bookstore where the staff writes why they like a particular book on display, but it’s better than Goodreads. And while you can read right from the Libby app, you can also send ebooks to your Kindle to get that sweet, sweet E Ink goodness.
It sounded perfect on paper, but I was skeptical. This wasn’t my first ebook rodeo, and the app didn’t solve my major problems with libraries. It still had long waiting lists for popular titles and imposed arbitrary loan periods. Libby has been sitting on my phone for a few months, unused. And then, in the summer of 2021, my mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness.
It was royal suck. Books had always been my refuge, but they became increasingly unavailable to me. If you are a caregiver it is not practical to carry around books like The Goldfinch around to various appointments, and there isn’t much time to quietly browse bookstores. Plus, I couldn’t pay my mom’s medical bills.
It started with audiobooks to drown out my thoughts when I drove to my mother. Libby works with CarPlay (and Android Auto!), and unlike Audible, it was free. If I didn’t finish an audiobook or if a block had expired, it didn’t matter because I didn’t have anywhere to go or felt like I had wasted money. Then it expanded to running magazines. I didn’t run as often as I would have liked, but it was comforting to imagine crossing the finish line when I was feeling stressed, which was often the case. Again, Libby gave me the fantasy without throwing a paywall in my face.
I still stuck with novels until I heard about Michelle Zauner’s memoirs Crying in H Mart. No spoilers, but it’s about a Korean-American woman who loses her mother and cultural identity in one fell swoop. Eerily relevant, its existence was a flame burning in my head, and I was another dumb moth. After weeks of avoiding it, I burst out – only to find it wasn’t immediately available at all my usual haunts. But it was there on Libby. Free, with miraculously no waiting list at the digital Queens Public Library. I read it in one afternoon.
I had a free portable little retreat wherever I went
Then I realized I had a free, portable little retreat wherever I went. Since I downloaded Libby, I’ve never had anything to read. There was pachinko by Min Jin Lee when I flew to Korea to bury my mother, On earth we are simply beautiful by Ocean Vuong on her birthday, and The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion when I ran a half marathon to raise money to fight the disease that was killing her. There were half a dozen messy novels I’m too embarrassed to mention and a few stinkers that I got back early. Most recently, I just finished The Midnight Library by Matthew Haig and began In the dream house by Carmen Maria Machado. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is next.
I’m aware that Libby has a dark side. The economics of ebooks puts libraries — the very institutions that have comforted me in the past year — at a disadvantage. It’s a problem that even Congress has recognized. And yet, it’s hard not to love an app that didn’t charge me to access the books I needed when I needed them.
Most importantly, I don’t have a book problem anymore.