December 2, 2020
Free books are bringing people together in Sri Lanka
by Jessie Stratton
You step off the subway at Canal Street. Maybe you swing by Blue Bottle Coffee for a cup of that essential joe. But you’re focused on the mission at hand: you walk north, arriving at Freeman Plaza West where—the best part of your day—you know a Little Free Library awaits you, filled with books of all kinds, ready to come face-to-face with their next reader.
Ok so maybe I’m making this sound a bit more glamorous than it actually is. But the fact still remains—these Little Free Libraries that pop up all over cities do spark joy and not just because someone has decided to get rid of that bestselling thriller that only published last week that you’ve been dying to get your hands on and it’s finally here ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod. I digress. Ultimately, the point of sharing books in a public way like this is about access to literature.
In the United States, two out of three children living in poverty have no books of their own. While Sri Lanka has the highest reported youth literacy rate in South Asia, there are still many villages all across the country with no library facilities and no access to books. Arriving on the scene is Mahinda Dasanayaka, 32, a child protection officer for the government who spends his free time trying to remedy this problem.
Bharatha Mallawarachi reports for AP that Dasanayaka started his program, “Book and Me,” three years ago, taking his motorcycle—packed with books—to the most rural parts of Sri Lanka and giving the books free of charge to the village children. This initiative has spread to more than twenty villages in Kegalle, a mountainous region located northeast of Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo. Kegalle is littered with poor villages whose children eagerly await the sound of Dasanayaka’s motorcycle arriving weekly with the latest collection, spanning all genres.
“Book and Me” began with books donated by friends and colleagues and now includes almost 3,000 books. Above all else, Dasanayaka wanted a way to bring people together, especially the two main ethnic groups in Sri Lanka after their civil war which ended in 2009. He says, “Books can be used for the betterment of society and promote ethnic reconciliation—because no one can get angry with books.” From expanding his reach to Sri Lanka’s former civil war zone to meeting with the children to discuss the value of reading, it appears that Dasanayaka has succeeded in his goal. He has even gone so far as to establish what we might call Little Free Libraries in certain villages, increasing access to books for children and adults alike.
As folks in publishing, we obviously take to heart stories like these that encourage diversity and growth through literature. Dasanayaka doesn’t seek attention or glory. His heart for reading and promoting access to books is what drives him, and if ever we needed Some Good News, it was this.
Jessie Stratton is an intern at Melville House.