Notebook: The Book Givers
On the road with the House of Speakeasy Bookmobile. A scene from their 2019 “Poetry to the People Tour,” a 4,000-mile cross-country odyssey bringing readings and workshops to eighteen cities and distributing over five thousand books
The state of Tennessee last month, responding to estimated covid-related summer reading losses of 50 percent among third graders, announced a program to distribute almost a million free books to young children, including every rising public-school first and second grader. (Washington Post book critic Ron Charles wryly observed that this gesture might go some way toward mitigating the bad rep the state earned among literati a few weeks previously when one of its school districts banned Art Spiegelman’s Maus for alleged prurience, and a local pastor and a state representative followed up by endorsing book-burning, a curatorial measure more frequently associated with that book’s villains. Tennessee lawmakers in March approved a bill that would expose librarians to criminal penalties for books on their shelves.) Tennessee ranks thirty-first in the country for reading proficiency.
As the program’s sponsors note, research has shown having books around the house contributes to literacy and other positive outcomes. On the flip side, for those living in so-called book-deserts, lack of access to printed books can be correlated with limitations in vocabulary, background knowledge, comprehension skills, and school-readiness. Studies have also continued to show that not only do children prefer reading physical books to digital ones, but reading physical books results in better retention and even possibly improved reasoning skills.
Here at Book Post we’ve covered hardy pioneers who bring books to neighborhoods otherwise lacking them in LA’s San Fernando Valley and the Bronx and Detroit neighbor Ypsilante. Booksellers like New Orleans’ Baldwin & Co, Oakland’s The Collective, and Oklahoma City’s Belle Books find mechanisms to give books away to underserved kids in their communities. The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City is joining up with a nonprofit called Brain Food Books to give books to Title One schools in West Salt Lake City and Utah Native reservations; WordPlay in Wardensville, West Virginia is incorporating a nonprofit arm to support book donations and author visits in rural West Virginia schools; Hub City Bookshop in Spartanburg, South Carolina, is a nonprofit bookstore with a program called Books as Mirrors giving diverse books to school libraries.
A charming group portrait this month of the folks to be found in Dallas’s cavernous Half Price Books flagship, from owners to regulars, noted that the “the company has donated and recycled millions of books over the decades, giving eleven million to schools and nonprofits in the last ten years alone.” (Half Price is “a living organism in a continuous state of evolution,” its D Magazine anthropologist observed. “One man purges, another consumes, each Half Price location a creation of its own unique community.”) We also wrote about Hidden Gems Literary Emporium, which grew out of a soup kitchen in New Brunswick, New Jersey, to create an affordable bookstore and free book exchange. Distributing free books is one of many ways booksellers punch above their weight as a cultural presence, as can be seen in many recent experiments in integrating bookselling with a nonprofit structure.
For its part, the National Book Foundation, beyond hosting a fancy annual party, gives away free books in public housing and connects kids with local authors to help them build home libraries. New York’s House of Speakeasy bookmobile (pictured above) partners with the Department of Transportation and the New York City Housing Authority to give away free books in points around the city. In our Notebook last year on school book fairs we observed that some book fair organizers find ways to incorporate inconspicuously giving books away to those who can’t afford to buy them at the fair, and we raised that idea that subsidized book fairs might be a good way to distribute the benefits of book-owning to more children. (Book Fair advocates note that kids respond more enthusiastically to books they have picked out themselves.) Recently many school systems have made all school lunches free (a pandemic-era national program is set to expire this coming school year, in the absence of Republican support for extending it), to eliminate the stigma of receiving a need-based free lunch, and, in a similar spirit, the Tennessee program is need-blind: all students are enrolled unless they opt out.
European governments, advocating for literacy as well as the preservation of local cultures and languages, use programs giving away books to support reading and publishing at the same time. Slovenia, as we noted in our Notebook on European book supports, gives a picture book to every newborn; Malta gives children debit cards to spend on books; Germany has had a program inviting readers to give away twenty-five books to their friends. During the pandemic both France and Italy instituted culture giveaways to young people to combat boredom and isolation and support cultural organizations. Comic book sales through France’s “Culture Pass,” which distributed 300€ to eighteen-year-olds across the country to spend on books, art, music, and theater, measurably contributed to overall book sales growth in France in 2021.
Some towns have responded to local book bans by raising funds to give away banned books. Most famously, in York, Pennsylvania, a town with an early library book ban that was reversed after student protests, donations poured in from around the country to a posted wish list offering to locals for free 4,500 copies of books from the banned list. In Nampa, Idaho, a local bookseller solicited donations to give away 1,500 books from their local school board’s ban list. A St. Louis bookstore received $30,000 in donations in the weeks following a local ban to distribute books from the banned list to those who request them, beginning with six hundred copies of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Our current bookstore partner, Gibson’s in Concord, New Hampshire, has a “Gay It Forward” program allowing donors to buy LGBTQ+ themed books to give away to anyone who wants them, even wrapping them up discreetly if that’s what you need. (LGTBQ+ themed books may be having a rocky time in school boards and school libraries, but they are doing great at the cash register: in 2021, sales of LGBTQ+ fiction reached five million units, doubling 2020 sales.)
Lewis Hyde has memorably written that culture itself comes to us in the form of a gift, even when cloaked in a commercial transaction. We know from having thousands of pictures on our computers that we never look at, unlike the one on our desk, that a tangible object has a presence for us—beyond questions of reading retention, eyestrain, etc.—that a digital signature will never quite have. The recent craze for NFTs seems almost like a parable of this enigma. Giving a child a book is like giving them a paper flower that opens when dropped into their mind, or building a window into the walls we have made around ourselves these last years. Blessed are the book givers.
Read our review of Lewis Hyde’s The Gift by Mona Simpson
Ann Kjellberg is the founding editor of Book Post.
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