How buying a book became an act of generosity

2014-09-21 15:00

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Today, 40 newspapers around the world are sharing the stories they have gathered about people who are making a difference in their communities through innovative solutions to universal problems. City Press is the exclusive SA partner of the project that stretches across the globe, including partners from each continent. On this second global Journalism Day, we hope you are inspired by these stories of innovation, hope and humanity

Following in the Napolitan tradition of the “caffè sospeso” (suspended coffee), Italians have now embraced a concept called “libro sospeso” – buying one book and offering a second as an anonymous gift.

“When a person in Naples is happy for whatever reason, instead of paying for just one coffee, the one he would drink, he pays for two. One for him and one for the next person who comes into the bar. It’s like offering a coffee to the rest of the world.”

This spring, when a few local booksellers tried the idea with books, it spread via social media and became a national phenomenon in a country where reading levels are among the lowest in Europe.

Customers in bookshops dotted up and down the Italian peninsula can buy a book for themselves then purchase another one for the next person who comes in, writing a dedication on a Post-it note. The book is usually photographed and posted on the shop’s own libro sospeso Facebook page before the lucky recipient takes it home.

“I was really happy to receive the book because it’s a sign someone cares about me,” said Antonio Langone, a 14-year-old in the town of Polla who wants to be a teacher when he grows up.

“I love reading. It’s much better than watching television, because you get inside the mind of the character.”

Langone’s parents are regulars at Polla bookshop Ex Libris Cafè, founded by Michele Gentile in 1985, and where the current trend seems to have begun. Gentile said it’s hard work attracting customers to his shop about an hour south of Salerno because of the town’s small size (Polla has a population of just 5?000).

He decided to create a libro sospeso on March 20 when Nielsen released the latest set of figures on readership levels in Italy. The figures were dismal. The number of adults who said they had bought a book fell to 43% last year from 49% in 2011.

He said: “I couldn’t ignore it. People see Libro Sospeso as a generous gesture, and it is. But my purpose was to draw attention to a real problem.” Gentile focused the initiative on children, since reading habits start early. His idea was picked up in local media, and spread to other bookshops in the south. Some aim the programme at adults, some at younger readers.

Fabrizia Gioiosa at the Libreria Kiria in Potenza, the capital city of Basilicata in southern Italy, said: “We started in March. A few days after the news stories about Polla came out, one of our regular clients came in and said he wanted to do it. The book was Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. It just started up like that.”

Hundreds of kilometres away, the same thing happened that week in Cristina di Canio’s small bookshop in Milan, Il Mio Libro, located on a quiet street in an area where the city’s well-heeled centre starts to give way to its rougher outskirts.

A new client came into the shop for a book signing. As he left, he bought a copy of David Golder by Irène Némirovsky, saying he really liked it and wanted to leave it for the next customer. When di Canio handed over the book to the next person who came into the shop, a regular customer named Michela, she was so delighted she asked if she could do the same thing in turn.

Di Canio said: “That’s when I knew something was happening. And I thought, ‘I really want to tell people about this.’” She checked Twitter for a hashtag and found nothing, so quickly typed out #librosospeso. The idea rippled through social media and went viral, with more than 3?million impressions on Twitter. Il Mio Libro has since had 300 libri sospesi.

Italy’s largest national bookstore chain, La Feltrinelli, picked up on the idea and started a libro sospeso project that ran from April?23 to May 5, resulting in 1?440 suspended books.

SA solution?

In South Africa, there are organisations such as biblionefsa.org.za that aim to provide storybooks to children’s educational centres that don’t have them. Since inception in 1998, the organisation has donated more than 1.3?million storybooks and reached about 3.6?million children. They donate an average of 12?000 books a month. Apart from this, they have also had more than 80 storybooks translated and printed in one or more of our 11 official languages as well as supported schools that support the visually impaired.

Would you be prepared to buy an extra children’s storybook each time you buy a book? Tell us what storybook(s) you’d share with the children. SMS 34263 with the keyword ‘BOOK’. SMSes cost R1.50 each

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