One of the many things I’m grateful to my mom for is the bag of regularly replenished library books she made sure we always had when I was a kid. Of course when I was very young, Mom would choose the books for me, and read them to me before bedtime. When I got older I was unleashed among the shelves of the Rondebosch Library, spending hours poring over books about aeroplanes and the Second World War, before picking out my favourites to take home. It was like being in a sweet shop — but better.
Of course, thanks to apartheid’s devastating legacy and the battles to ameliorate it, many of South Africa’s libraries aren’t nearly as well stocked as the one I was privileged to visit while growing up. The scale of the challenges to make all of our country’s libraries vibrant catalysts for learning, dreaming, escaping, and imagining might seem daunting, but US émigré Griffin Shea isn’t deterred. Not content with recently having established Bridge Books (one of Joburg’s loveliest independent bookshops), he’s also on a mission “to grow readers and preserve our stories” by bringing South African books to the nation’s libraries. To achieve this, he’s established the African Book Trust (ABT), along with a heavyweight board of directors: former banker Harry Ntombela; Zurina Saban, the International Finance Corporation’s head lawyer for Africa; and Sahm Venter, the former journalist, researcher, and author of Conversations with a Gentle Soul.
To start with, Shea has selected 10 different titles — including The Memory of Stones by Mandla Langa, London Cape Town Joburg by Zukiswa Wanner, and The Sculptors of Mapungubwe by Zakes Mda — that the ABT will distribute to 50 libraries by Mandela Day on July 17. They’re all remaindered books, Shea tells me, “hidden treasures that had been destined for pulping. I didn’t know what remaindered books were until about 18 months ago, but it’s amazing what you can find on those lists. There are a lot of books that could find more readers if they were more widely circulated. So we started with these because they’re all fantastic books that deserve to have a more dynamic life. And also because they were available cheaply, so it’s more bang for our buck.”