Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Hari Batti--Agony Uncle: Green Book Giving Advice

Dear Mr. Batti,

I have a lot of books in not-bad-at-all condition that I would like to give away. It would be a shame to recycle them, but as it is they are just taking up room in my small flat. Where do you suggest I give them?

Ms. P 

Dear Ms. P,

I love to hear from book lovers like yourself.  I often hang on to books longer than I should, but space is always a concern, and the more times a book is read, the better, from a green point of view! Still, your question is more difficult than it appears, which is why it took me so long to answer it.  Books are a little bit like sweets.  Just as some people love jalebi but are allergic to barfi, some readers love history but cannot tolerate mysteries, even good ones!  And some will recycle anything you give them anyway!  Of course the opposite is also true in many cases; there is simply no accounting for taste. 

Books are, however, superior to sweets in two important respects; they are not bad for your health, and they have a much longer shelf life!  This is why I have been known to give poetry at Diwali.  I reason that even if the gift does not find a reader right away, it may someday.  And it won’t give anyone gas or contribute to heart problems.

I am not suggesting you give away your used books at Diwali, although now that I think of it, that might actually work if your friends are book lovers and you choose your gifts well.  Wrap them up in some recycled paper, make cards to go with them, and you’ve got some super green gifts, suitable for any occasion!

You could also hold an informal book swap.  Invite a dozen book lovers over for food and refreshments.  Ask them to bring anywhere between one and six good used books to trade.  (What makes a book good depends on who is reading it, of course.  But for the purposes of a book swap, good books do not include your friend’s uncle’s volume of self-published poetry or your friend’s father’s self-published business memoirs. It certainly does not include manuals for decade-old software. If you have to, give those books away to someone you don’t like at Diwali. Or give them to the kabadi wallah; he’ll put them to good use!) 

In a book swap, everyone puts their books on a table and can take away as many books as they bring. The point of a book swap is to get books into the hands of people who want to read them.  If you are hosting the swap, you should make sure you contribute a few really good books; if people have enough fun, someone might offer to host the next one.

Friends of Books, a Delhi-based book rental agency, held two book swaps earlier this year in Delhi, and both were a lot of fun.  I’m not sure if they’ll do another one, but it wouldn’t hurt to get on their mailing list, just in case.  And while you are at it, why not check out their service?  Though free public libraries are best, it's almost always better to rent than to buy new from a green perspective.  Friends of Books also sells books, by the way, and I have heard they do a good job of that, as well.

Speaking of selling books, you could try selling yours to a used book dealer.  There are used book sellers in Lajpat Nagar, Saket, and of course there’s the big market in Daryagang.  Used book markets are great because, from a green point of view, the more people that read a book, the better, and there's no harm in making a bit of money out of the deal!

If you have children’s books, it is tempting to want to give them to needy children. But used book are not like used clothes, because it is much more difficult to find the right fit when it comes to books. First, and most obvious, there is language. It makes little sense to give books to children who cannot read them. Even if language is not a problem, it is difficult for students who have no experience reading outside of what is required in school to pick up a book and read for the joy of it. 

One solution is to find a school, an NGO or a family that already values reading and give the books to them. This is not always as easy to do as you might think.  Even elite schools in Delhi often pay only lip service to reading for pleasure.  The same is true for most schools that serve working class and poor children.  Many schools will take your books, but won’t know what to do with them, since they haven't taught children how to read from anything except a text book.

If you have time to give and experience reading aloud to children, there are a lot of NGO’s out there who would welcome volunteers who like to read aloud to young people.  Or you could set up an informal reading hour (start with 30 minutes!) with the children in your own colony.  Once children learn to love hearing stories, it is much easier to convince them to read themselves.  Do this, and you’ll have no problem finding a home—either temporary or permanent—for your old story books, because you’ll have created readers—and readers crave good books!  This is a good thing to do, but don't do it out of charity.  Reading improves many things, including thinking.  And we will need a lot more good thinkers if we are ever going to solve the problems we’ve all collectively created!

Well, Ms. P, that's a long answer for a short question.  I do hope some of it helps.  And if anyone else out there has a question for the dhaba regarding green stuff, why not send it our way?

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