Gratitude For The Biblioburros
A heartening story from LaGloria, Colombia, in today's New York Times:
In a ritual repeated nearly every weekend for the past decade here in Colombia’s war-weary Caribbean hinterlands, Luis Soriano gathered his two donkeys, Alfa and Beto, in front of his home on a recent Saturday afternoon.This is truly wonderful. The burros are not named for the Argentinian writer Adolfo Bioys Casares. No, this is about a different kind of labor of love. This is about bringing books and literacy to those in the interior of a war torn country.
Sweating already under the unforgiving sun, he strapped pouches with the word “Biblioburro” painted in blue letters to the donkeys’ backs and loaded them with an eclectic cargo of books destined for people living in the small villages beyond.
His choices included “Anaconda,” the animal fable by the Uruguayan writer Horacio Quiroga that evokes Kipling’s “Jungle Book”; some Time-Life picture books (on Scandinavia, Japan and the Antilles); and the “Dictionary of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language.”
“I started out with 70 books, and now I have a collection of more than 4,800,” said Mr. Soriano, 36, a primary school teacher who lives in a small house here with his wife and three children, with books piled to the ceilings.
“This began as a necessity; then it became an obligation; and after that a custom,” he explained, squinting at the hills undulating into the horizon. “Now,” he said, “it is an institution.”
How did Sr. Soriano get this idea?
By the time he was in his 20s, Colombia’s long internal war had drawn paramilitary bands to the lawless marshlands and hills surrounding La Gloria, leading to clashes with guerrillas and intimidation of the local population by both groups.A radio show led to Sr. Soriano's receiving hundreds and hundreds of books, which he now distributes. It is, as he says, an Institution.
Into that violence, which has since ebbed, Mr. Soriano ventured with his donkeys, taking with him a few reading textbooks, encyclopedia volumes and novels from his small personal library. At stops along the way, children still await the teacher in groups, to hear him read from the books he brings before they can borrow them.
What a wonderful idea it is to put into the hands of people who have no real access to books, wonderful books of all kinds. And then to continue to pick them up and to provide others over time. I imagine that this very much brightens readers' lives. I imagine people sitting in the jungle interior of Colombia with candles and kerosene lamps reading the books brought by the Biblioburros. I imagine myself waiting in the sun for the arrival of the burros, wondering whether Sr. Soriano has brought me Cesar Aira, or Juan Carlos Onetti, or Ricardo Piglia, or some other wonder, wondering what treasures he has for me.
I have nothing but gratitude for Sr. Soriano. If there were a way for me to get books to him, or even money for books, I would. But alas, there's no information about that in the Times article. I wish there were.