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6 Ways to Be a Bookish Do-Gooder

Tracy Shapley Towley

Staff Writer

Tracy is a freelance copywriter, all-around ne’er do well, very-adult graduate of the University of Iowa, and occasional waterer of plants. Her hobbies include writing fiction, reading fiction, mixing together various flavors of soup, and typing letters to her friends on an old red typewriter that doesn't have a working period so all sentences must end in questions marks or exclamation points? She has read every Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and has a lot of thoughts on them. Her old Iowa farmhouse is shared by her husband Sean, a pair of cats, a pair of dogs, and the ghost of Kurt Vonnegut.

This is a guest post from Tracy Shapley. Tracy is a freelance copywriter, all around ne’er do well, and occasional waterer of plants. Her hobbies include writing fiction, mixing together various flavors of soup, and trying to convince her friends that she’s not a hipster. Character development is more important to her than plot and she has read every Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. She has a lot of thoughts on them. Tracy lives in an old farmhouse in Iowa City with her partner Sean, their two cats Dry Bones and Gristle, and the ghost of Kurt Vonnegut.

According to Frederick Buechner, the place we all belong is “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Yeah, it’s a nice idea and all, but there may have been some eye rolling the first time I read that quote. I mean, it sounded great but I wasn’t sure how my total devotion to ice cream was going to make the world a better place.

But then I remembered – books! Books have improved my life. I’ve seen them improve the lives of others. I have both a deep thirst for talking about / thinking about / writing about books and a deep thirst for being an active participant in my community. Over the years I’ve found a number of ways to scratch both these itches at once.  

Open your mouth and read to some folks

Do you like to read out loud? Do you like people to stare blankly at you while you do it? Then have I got a volunteer position for you! Talk to your local hospital to see if they have a program in their children’s ward (or if they’d like to start one) or get after your local retirement homes and see if some of your elders would like it.

Here in Iowa City we have several assisted living facilities that are begging for volunteers to come over and chat with their folks. One of them has a weekly ice cream social that’s pretty amazing: ice cream + people with awesome stories = a damn fine time. But imagine if you were sitting there reading from your favorite canon! Heaven.

Check with your local non-profit thrift store that sells books

We have a really awesome non-profit thrift store here and I’m lucky enough to volunteer in their book department. We get thousands of books every month and the job of the book volunteers is essentially to sort them. The process usually goes like this:

  • Is it in good shape? If so, move on to the next step. If not, recycle it.
  • Is it a title I immediately identify as popular in the store’s book section? I have to be careful to keep my personal opinions out of this because many of the books that sell quickly are not my taste. If it is something I know is likely to sell quickly, then I price it and put it on the to-shelve stack. If not, I move on to the next step.
  • What’s it selling for on Amazon? If it’s selling for more than a buck then we sell it on Amazon. If it’s selling for a penny then we usually assume that there are billions of copies out there in circulation and we can’t do much with it. At that point we either donate it to one of several organizations we partner with or we recycle it.

I also pull books that just look interesting. Of course, the best part of this job is the weird stuff you find in old books.

Be a badass steward of your own Free Little Library

There are more than 36,000 Free Little Library locations across the world and each of them offers folks a way to share their books with the community. Starting a Little Free Library can be a complicated process and there is some expense involved – mostly in the acquisition of the actual library – but choosing to be a steward is a great way to do good locally. Plus, birds!

Judge the hell out of other people’s words

Okay, maybe chill out a little on the judging but running a free writing workshop in your community can have an enormous impact. Whether you just want to work with other writers all as equals, or you want to lead a workshop for people dealing with the impact of homelessness, domestic violence, incarceration, etc., there is plenty of evidence that writing and sharing it with others can have be hugely helpful.

Give somebody else the gift (addiction) of reading

Unless you listen to the Book Riot podcast and have heard us talk about the stats over and over again (it’s important! and concerning! and surprising but also not surprising!) you likely don’t know that 32 million adults in the United States can’t read. Yep, 14% of the population can’t read at all and 21% can’t read to a 5th grade level. 19% of people who graduated high school can’t read. 70% of incarcerated people can’t read.

These numbers are depressing but there’s a lot us book nerds can do about it. Check your community to see what literacy programs you can get involved in. If there aren’t any, start one. Yes, you! You don’t have to be a teacher to sit down and read with some folks. Often all it takes is a willingness to help. Plus, the ability to leave your judgy-pants with the writing workshop you’re also starting. Man, you’re busy! Good job.

Sell books for a cause

If you’re like most book nerds, you have over-stuffed shelves and plenty of books you know you should part with but can’t quite bring yourself to do so. I feel no moral confliction about keeping books I’ve loved and it’s easy for me to get rid of books I didn’t like but those in between books can be a bear to let go of. The best success I’ve had doing so has been selling them for a good cause.

There’s lots of ways to do it. You can sell them yourself on Amazon or Ebay and donate the funds to your favorite cause. You can get folks involved and do a much larger book drive. You could set a booth up at a local flea market or farmer’s market. Keep an eye out for neighborhood or city-wide garage sales in your area too. Bonus points if the charity you’re donating the cash to is literacy / book / nerd related.

What are the best ways you’ve found to get involved in your community, reading related or otherwise?