The Libby app put a refuge in my pocket when I needed it most

A year ago, I had a book problem.

Specifically, I had nowhere to put them. I’m a New York City renter, not a Disney princess. There are no floor-to-ceiling bookshelves with sliding ladders that I can hang from, singing about the last banger of a novel I read. It used to be that I’d carry a box of books to my mom’s house anytime I ran out of space on my rickety Ikea bookshelf. But when she got sick, I promised myself to make do with less.

Easy fix, right? Get an e-reader. Thousands of books on a single, lightweight device. All the E Ink glory my decrepit eyes can handle. Problem solved? Yes and no. I’ve got 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 curation of a bookstore. If it could be as affordable as a library without forcing this pajama gremlin to go outside, all the better. I texted this exact spiel to a fellow bookworm a while back. When I was done kvetching, she texted back three words. “Just download Libby.”

For the uninitiated, Libby is a free (!) library app powered by OverDrive. You can borrow or put holds on magazines and books of all sorts from your local libraries. (Multiple!) All you need is a library card. For some libraries, you can punch your phone number into the Libby app to get one. If you don’t know what to read, you can browse through curated recommendations. It’s not the same as those sticky notes you’ll find at a bookstore, where the staff write why they loved a particular book on display, but it’s better than Goodreads. And while you can read directly from the Libby app, you could alternatively 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 main issues with libraries. It still had long waitlists for popular titles and imposed arbitrary loan periods. Libby sat on my phone for a few months, unused. And then, in the summer of 2021, my mom was diagnosed with a terminal illness.

It royally sucked. Books had always been my refuge, but they became increasingly unavailable to me. When you’re a caregiver, it’s not practical to lug tomes like The Goldfinch around to various appointments, and there’s not a lot of time to leisurely browse at bookstores. Plus, I was broke from covering my mom’s medical bills.

It started with audiobooks to drown out my thoughts when driving to my mom’s. Libby works with CarPlay (and Android Auto!), and unlike Audible, it was free. If I didn’t finish an audiobook or a hold lapsed, it wasn’t a big deal because I didn’t have to go anywhere or feel like I wasted money. Then it expanded to running magazines. I wasn’t running as often as I’d have liked, but it was comforting to imagine myself crossing finish lines when I felt stressed, which was often. Again, Libby afforded me the fantasy without throwing a paywall in my face.

I still held out on novels until I heard about Michelle Zauner’s memoir Crying in H Mart. No spoilers, but it’s about a Korean-American woman losing her mother and cultural identity in one fell swoop. Eerily relevant, its existence was a flame burning in my mind, and I was another stupid moth. After weeks of avoiding it, I cracked — only to find it wasn’t immediately available at all my usual haunts. But it was there on Libby. For free, with miraculously no waitlist at the digital Queens Public Library. I tore through it in a single afternoon.

After that, I realized I had a free, portable little refuge wherever I went. Since downloading Libby, I’ve never been without something to read. There was Pachinko by Min Jin Lee when I flew to Korea to bury my mom, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous 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 killed her. There were a half dozen trashy romance novels I’m too embarrassed to name and some stinkers I returned early. Most recently, I’ve just finished The Midnight Library by Matthew Haig and started In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is next.

I’m aware that there’s a dark side to Libby. The economics of ebooks squarely puts libraries — the very institutions that gave me solace this past year — at a disadvantage. It’s a problem that even Congress has acknowledged. 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.