Libraries, Books, and Dreams: The Sequel

Just in case you missed the prequel, it can be found here.

When I was a child I liked to read. To be honest, I don’t remember why or how; I don’t remember my mom teaching me to read, but I assume she did. I just know that by fourth grade or so I was already deep into the habit of checking out books from the public library and reading them at home. As I recall, the Doctor Dolittle series was at the top of my list. Reading somehow fed or captured my imagination and filled in the many gaps in my bland, suburban, middle-American surroundings. When I had an assignment in primary school that required choosing something from the school’s small library, I zeroed in on a biography of Malcolm X (I loved the idea that someone could have such a name; that was the extent of my knowledge). In high school I was just as oblivious when I plucked The Way in Africa off the shelves. I had no idea it would have anything to do with Christian missionaries. What I remember most about reading is the day (maybe in fifth grade or so) when some friends came around to my house, wanting me to join in a game of football. I liked sports a lot, but at that moment was engrossed in a book (whether Doctor Dolittle or a book about dolphins by Arthur C. Clarke, I can’t recall). The strange reaction I got from my friends clearly communicated to me the message that reading wasn’t the thing to do in one’s free time. So I stopped.

Many years later I got back to it. As a budding artist/writer/thinker, how could I not? If I cared to consider it (but I didn’t, because it was just too easy to take books for granted) I might have seen the book as the ultimate portable art object. In the digital age, that’s how I increasingly see it now. I don’t think that any gadget (a “tablet” or laptop or “smartphone” or whatever) can compete with the simplicity, purity, portability, durability, and overall transformative potential of a book.

These are some of the thoughts that came to me recently, as I was in the process of sorting through and categorizing some of the ninety-odd boxes, containing some untold thousands of books, that we arranged to donate to our community through the US Nonprofit organization Books for Africa (BFA). As noted in the prequel, the libraries in Debre Markos primary schools were severely lacking in age/reading level-appropriate English language books, and what books were stored there were not readily accessible to students. Hence the BFA project.

That long process of pulling books out of boxes, examining them, and putting them into piles, put me back in touch with books, and more specifically American books, in an intimate way. For a younger volunteer, nostalgia may have come into play, but not for me (alas, no Doctor Dolittle or Arthur C. Clarke books were included). My reactions were mixed. Let me sketch out a few of those here, in random order:

  • Design and Quality. I was almost overwhelmed by the beauty, precision, and thoughtful design that went into many of these books. The carefully chosen language, wonderful illustrations, and superb book-making craft were almost enough to bring tears to my eyes. While some in the volunteer community adhere to the philosophy that one should develop resources locally, through partnerships with locals (one that I appreciate and agree with to a large extent) it was immediately clear that I could never, with local partners, develop anything approaching the appealing and well-crafted, durable, fit-for-purpose objects that I was pulling out of so many of these cardboard boxes. I’ve been teaching for awhile, and I know that teachers need resources. In the US I wasn’t as dependent on books because I had ready access to the internet, a printer, scanner, photocopier, and a hard-wired projector mounted to the classroom ceiling. Here what most teachers have access to is the English for Ethiopia textbook, and not much else. And most volunteers will react less than enthusiastically when asked to comment on the quality/suitability of those textbooks. Many of these donated books have enormous potential as teaching resources. The tabbed section at the back of the Teachers’ Guides alone contain a wealth of photocopy-able tools that would be extremely time-consuming and difficult to assemble through other means.
  • Culture Gap. The level of English in some books was obviously too challenging for most of the schools here. But and even bigger issue wasn’t English language, per se, but American culture. Many of the books pertained to topics or cultural situations that aren’t familiar here or just flat out don’t apply. Bathtubs and rubber duckies; the travails of potty training, issues involved in the proper care of one’s new Guinea Pig, personal responsibility demonstrated through the cleaning up of one’s room (yes, a child with a huge, personal, carpeted space and a mountain of industrially produced toys), pizza parties at the mall, and so on and so forth.
  • Bizarreness gap. At some point regular stories ceased to be sufficient for American children. It wasn’t good enough to have a clever or intriguing story about, say, a monkey. A monkey in a forest just won’t cut it. The monkey has to be an astronaut. And he has to be an exceedingly clever, zany monkey, one who can’t resist silly word play of the sort that will confuse the bejesus out of any right-minded second-language learner. So we have gargoyles driving school buses and zombies playing soccer and some cartoon character named “Captain Underpants” who seems to specialize in zany, toilet-themed hijinks (including The Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants and The Attack of the Talking Toilets). Someone had put a great deal of thought into creating a book that would help children deal with divorcing/divorced parents. For some reason, though, the parents and children depicted in the book all had to be dinosaurs. When a teacher at the secondary school pulled this book out of the box, he immediately remarked along these lines: “Ah, yes, dinosaurs, these are extinct fossil reptiles of the Mesozoic era.” It was painfully difficult for me to explain the whole self-help, divorced parents angle to him. Things here tend to be more direct, more categorical, more black-and-white, and the cleverly-layered sarcastic approach may be confusing. The tendency toward zany, hyperactive devotion to low attention span mentality is one I’ve been observing in American animated films for some time now, but this was my first opportunity to see the “literary” equivalent. It makes me wonder and worry about our culture.
  • Commercialism. Amongst the many gems were any number of books in a series based on various television shows and part of much larger marketing/sales campaigns. I never knew much about Spongebob Squarepants, but when I saw his likeness wash up on an otherwise pristine, protected beach in Costa Rica, I knew we were in trouble. In my shipment I received many chapter books detailing his exploits, no more or less enthralling than those of Dora (of Explorer fame), Barbie, or (the undisputed queen) Hanna Montana. There was even a Spongebob Trivia book that would only have relevance and meaning for those devotees already well-versed in the Spongebob school. I guess anything that gets kids reading is good, but I’m not sure about literature that only “works” if already preconditioned by the TV series. Needless to say these books are of marginal value here, but what about back in the USA? It makes me wonder a bit, and worry a bit, about our culture.
  • Rejects. There were only a very small handful of books for which could I not find a good and proper home. Most of these were either too severely damaged or included other languages (dual-language English/Spanish textbooks, Spanish only textbooks, and tiny (storybooks?) in Vietnamese). Perhaps the least appropriate was a paperback accurately titled Truly Tasteless Jokes which includes chapters for various ethnicities and religions, male and female anatomy, and so on. The Gover Norquist polemic Leave Us Alone [Getting the Government’s Hands Off Our Money, Our Guns, Our Lives] was hard to picture in any public school or library here (I for one would gladly leave Grover alone, all alone, with his guns and his money, if given the chance). Then there were the “religious” books that seem designed to indoctrinate children in X, Y, or Z creed. One standout here was Left Behind >The Kids<, a fictional tale of middle and high school students preparing for the rapture by facing the authorities who “outlaw carrying bibles or even talking about God.” Another oddity was Your Nine-Year Old [Thoughtful and Mysterious]. Yet another was a work of teen fiction called Stop in the Name of Pants that seemed (on cursory inspection) to deal with one young woman’s neuroses about said article of clothing and made for bizarre reading here in Ethiopia. There is nothing wrong with any of these books, per se, but they’re simply too far off in left-field for this project and the local context, and almost certain to be confusing or misunderstood.

Overall, I was very impressed by the quality and variety of books, and the almost limitless potential for their use. Students seemed immediately enthusiastic, too. When I delivered a box of books to one primary school, a young boy lit up and exclaimed, “Thomas!” when he caught sight of the Thomas the Train book at the top of the stack. A librarian at one school studied a non-fiction book about princesses. A supervisor found a Teletubbies reader of great interest and volunteered to read it to kindergarten students at one of the smaller, poorer schools on his next visit. Ons student was fascinated by the labels I had just created and put up on the shelves of the new lending library, and was reading them all out loud to his friends: “Chapter books, leveled readers, phonics, picture books, alphabet, numbers …”

Yes, my main school now has a lending library that is well-stocked with age-appropriate English language books. As I requested, these books are all shelved separately from the general collection, in a place (unlike those other books) that is easy for students to see and access. Time will tell how successful this whole endeavor can be. From a personal perspective, I can already say it’s the most successful thing I’ve done since being assigned here. Donations came from friends and family back home via the BFA website. I partnered with a group of other volunteers around Ethiopia, and we coordinated our efforts with a broad mix of organizations and agencies at the national and local level to get these books from Djibouti to Addis to our local communities and finally into local schools and libraries. This project embodied the spirit of partnership and coordination that is what we volunteers strive for, and provided resources the community could not afford to invest in. The community was far more involved with this project than any other I’ve initiated, and it reached farther, into more remote pockets of the community, from schools to the public library to a large orphanage to the local prison, than any of my day-to-day work. There were a lot of setbacks and problems along the way, but we navigated those with the help and expertise of local actors. And best of all (unlike so many things we try to do) this lending library is sustainable; now that it’s been established, staff at the school can easily run it, maintain it, and even expand it.

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