Compared to clean water, health care, and emergency relief, the need for libraries may seem less urgent. Books, after all, inform us, excite us, and delight us, but are they as essential as water? Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing, who passed away last month, would have asserted that the answer is yes.
Lessing used her 2007 Nobel Prize acceptance speech to make an impassioned argument for the value of books -- treasure troves of information that we privileged members of the developed world take for granted. She spent much of her childhood in Africa and later returned as a volunteer to help bring books to impoverished villages. During these trips, she met villagers who hadn't eaten in days, but "they were still talking about books and how to get them": young people who taught themselves to read from the labels of jam jars; a mother who walked miles to the only store that sold clean water, where she then found herself engrossed in Anna Karenina; a man so determined to preserve the few books he owned that he wrapped each one in plastic. Their hunger for stories, Lessing discovered, was as deep as their hunger for nourishment.
Brad Wirz wasn't thinking of Lessing when he created the philanthropic e-commerce site GoneReading, which sells book-themed products to benefit reading-related charities. But he would subscribe to her line of thinking. "Reading is a primary tool of self-empowerment," Wirz said. "It's amazing how a little bit of knowledge can bring about radical change."
I recently got to chat with Wirz about the genesis of GoneReading. In 2010, he had reached his breaking point as a marketing executive. Exhausted after yet another grueling business trip, he collapsed onto the floor of his New York hotel room. He made a frantic phone call to his wife and vowed to do something more meaningful. Fast forward one year and Wirz was mixing concrete on the jungle floor of a Honduran village, helping that community build its first library. A self-described book nerd, he says his passion for the cause was "embedded in his DNA" -- and setting up a philanthropic company was a natural step.
Once he came up with the idea for GoneReading, he set about to select the beneficiaries of his company's revenue. "I knew I needed to educate myself on what was good philanthropy and what wasn't," he said. "We made a deliberate search based on 10 or 12 criteria."
From a list of about 200 reading-oriented nonprofits, he eventually settled on a few standouts. For booklovers looking to spread what Wirz calls the "magic of reading," here are four organizations worth supporting this holiday season:
- Ethiopia Reads Wirz was attracted to this small, yet resourceful organization after learning that its founder Yohannes Gebregeorgis had been named a 2008 CNN Hero. "In Ethiopia, there aren't a lot of paved roads," Wirz explained, "but there are a lot of donkeys, so Ethiopia Reads created donkey-powered libraries." The books go into a colorfully painted cart, which the donkeys then tow from village to village. Watch this moving video to see local children react to one of these portable libraries rolling through. (Tearjerker alert!). In addition to other programs, the organization places a strong emphasis on librarian training within the Ethiopian communities it serves, which Wirz believes is a critical investment: "These kids haven't been previously exposed to the joys of reading. A librarian might be the one to light that fire."
- READ Global Funded primarily by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, this organization struck Wirz as "completely unique." Not only does the charity help build libraries in South Asia, it also empowers communities to make their libraries sustainable. READ contributes the majority of funding necessary to set up a library and then helps locals establish profitable businesses, such as tractor rental services or agricultural cooperatives. For this reason, the nonprofit has a perfect track record of these libraries sustaining themselves. "What's great is that some of these villages have gone on to build new libraries without the help of the outside world," Wirz said. "It creates a cycle of prosperity."
- Biblioworks A grassroots effort spearheaded by the online bookseller Biblio.com, Biblioworks promotes education and literacy in rural South America. Since 2005, the charity has built 11 community libraries, supplied books, and provided librarian training in the some of the poorest areas of Bolivia.
- GoneReading Those searching for "gifts that give" will find them here. When you make a purchase through the site, all after-tax profits are donated to Ethiopia Reads and READ Global; if you buy GoneReading wares from Biblio.com, 10% goes to Biblioworks. Wirz's line of merchandise features hundreds of products for booklovers, from literary-themed apparel to journals to book lights. Personally, I'm a fan of the "reading woman" notecards featuring classic paintings from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
"When you travel to the developing world," Wirz said, "it hits you that books hold potential solutions to drought, disease, lack of power--whatever ails a community. It's one of the things that gives you hope." Lessing put it another way: "It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed." Far too many of our fellow humans lack the tools to recreate and rebuild their lives. It is up to us to make sure more of the world's citizens find the vital resources between the covers.