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The Audacious Chaos of Hotel Take-a-Book Leave-a-Book Programs

Destinations that encourage “take-a-book-leave-a-book” create a community without borders.

Upon arriving at my family’s annual trip to Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio, this summer, I made a beeline for the shared bookshelf at Abigail’s Lakeside Cottages, where we’ve stayed every summer since my kids were babies. I always travel with a few books to leave behind so that I can take home new ones. The honest nature of the free book economy is part of what makes it so special. I began to scan the spines available to me. Did I want to re-read Firefly Lane, a classic I’ve enjoyed several times? Danielle Steel? I had binged all of her novels in sixth grade, pilfered from my mom’s bedside table. Maybe the Tattooist of Auschwitz? I wasn’t fast enough–my brother grabbed that one first. The colorful green spine of a hardcover novel grabbed my eye. I actually do judge books by their covers, and I am a sucker for colorful ones. I plucked it from the shelf. Mine.

As we travel the world, I am always on the hunt for new books. I’ve stumbled into cluttered used bookstores stacked to the ceiling with paperback fiction and coffee shops selling the work of local authors. My favorite find, though, is always the take-a-book-leave-a-book shelves at various hotels, rental homes, and resorts we’ve stayed at. Books congregate on these shelves from across the globe–how many countries have they been in? Who read them before me? Did they (and this is my favorite) leave an inscription for the next reader? The collections of books that wind up at various vacation destinations have no rhyme or reason to them. They lack the organization system of a library or the carefully curated tables of a swanky bookstore. Novels lean against nonfiction nonchalantly. An occasional textbook appears, begging me to read just a chapter about nursing or ancient Greece. Sometimes a child’s book is questionably shoved between adult reads, and I wonder what child chose to leave a book behind. More likely, their parents were sick of reading the same book on repeat and conveniently “lost it” on vacation. Travel bookshelves are a chance to find a long-forgotten favorite or discover something new.

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With my latest treasure tucked under my arm, I walked towards the water’s edge. All books are better by the water; that’s a scientific fact.

I settled into my chair and opened the cover of Last Summer at the Golden Hotel by Elyssa Friedland. As I cracked the spine (which didn’t really crack, as the book was clearly already well-loved), I saw a note inside. Jackpot! The inscription read, “I finished up this book during our annual stay at Abigail’s and it felt fun reading about another place steeped in family fun and history (with spotty wifi) Enjoy reading, enjoy GOTL.” She signed her name, her cottage number, and their regular week. I literally squealed with delight, told my kids to go find some junk food so they would leave me alone, and dug in. The book is about a summer camp in the Catskills and the families that have been a part of it for generations. The narrative arc is gorgeous; the characters both loveable and hateable. The similarities between where I was sitting and the world created by the author made it the perfect lakeside read for the week. The previous reader was correct, and I so appreciated her recommendation.

I asked some friends about their most wild travel bookshelf finds. One discovered a local author’s book on a shelf at her Airbnb, and has since read all of their work–she’s obessed. My friend Juliet Martinez lived in Guatemala as a teen, and their parents always traded books with English-speaking tourists. “That’s how I read A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul. It was one of the most memorable novels I read during that time in my life.” A fellow writer, Diane Selkirk, told me about her trip sailing around the world. She found a book her friend Allison Winn Scotch wrote while staying in Fiji, The One That I Want. They dropped it at another book exchange in Australia and continued on their journey. Four years later, while perusing a marina book exchange in Panama, she found the same book. Not another copy–the exact same book, now filled with inscriptions from other readers. “That book sailed around more quickly than we did,” she says.

I tucked Last Summer at the Golden Hotel into the side pocket of my suitcase before I stowed our bags away after our trip. Sure, I could loan it to a friend or leave it in the Little Free Library on my street. Instead, I will take it with me on my travels until I see another book exchange, add my inscription under the first one, and envision the smile on the next reader’s face when they see where this book has been. Hopefully, wherever I leave it, I’ll find another stellar novel, travel guide, or well-worn biography of someone I’ve never heard of that will continue to expand my horizons. That’s the beauty of the audacious chaos of travel bookshelves.