June 27, 2018

Colombia’s “Lord of the Books” hopes to eradicate his country’s book deserts


José Alberto Gutierrez. Via La Fuerza de las Palabras.

The United States—its actual topography notwithstanding—is full of book deserts. That term refers to areas (skewing heavily toward lower-income communities) underserved by both libraries and bookstores, places where books have a harder time of making their way.

And yet, books can cover more ground faster here than they can in a place like Colombia, where populations can be very far from one another, sometimes with dense jungles or soaring mountains between them. Under those conditions, one man, now dubbed the nation’s “lord of the books,” has made it his personal mission to overcome those challenges, and bring books to his country’s farthest-flung readers.

As Julián Vivas Banguera reports for El Tiempo, by day, the LOTB is José Alberto Gutierrez, a garbage collector in the Colombia’s capital, Bogata. To haul garbage is to quickly recognize a pattern of discarded books that would, could, and should end up back in the hands of readers. 

As Vivas Banguera writes:

While working his nightly route on the west side of the city, he was struck by the potential of so many discarded books. With help from his wife, Gutierrez decided to build a community library in his own home. Ten years later it became the Fundación La Fuerza de las Palabras (Power of Words Foundation). Since then, Gutierrez has rescued and distributed more than 50,000 books—spanning subjects such as science, literature, business, and medicine—to hundreds of community centers and rural schools across the country.

For Gutierrez, the mission feels particularly urgent in a country where only two in five high school graduates will go on to complete a university degree. His foundation has delivered books to everyone from the indigenous community of Huitotacueimaní (who responded with a hearty thank you via video) to former FARC guerillas.

Let us be the first to call Gutierrez the Dolly Parton of Colombia.



Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.