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It all started with 23-year-old Lilya, a charming and ebullient worker in the Language Center at the university. One night, as she was sending me voice messages to practice her English, she went on excitedly about a recent purchase of some used books. In short order, she was telling me it was her dream to one day read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and other classics in English — but that books in English are difficult to find in Belarus, and when they are found, they are unaffordable.
“Sweeheart,” I messaged her in response. “I brought a stack of novels to read while I am here. The decision is made: I am leaving them with you when I go.” In her next message, Lilya was crying.
When I wrote about this interaction — and how I hadn’t realized how strong the desire is in Belarus to get hands on books in English — my friends and family, dedicated book readers who understand this passion, sprang into action. From a variety of corners, there were offers: “I will send that sweet girl some books. What should I send?” Within an hour, a box of books was on its way through Amazon Global. Within a few days, an envelope of books was in transit.
When I went into the Language Center to hang up my coat before teaching my weekly lesson, I slipped the first shipment of books next to Lilya’s laptop. The moment she spotted them there, it was as though the sun had been hung in the sky for the first time. Lilya cried again. Her colleagues in the office gathered around appreciatively to admire and fondle each volume, slowly turning the pages, in awe at the sight of the words.
It was in that moment I started to realize something: it wasn’t only Lilya who was craving the opportunity to read books in English.
Then Olga, the director of the Language Center, said matter-of-factly, “It is my dream to one day start a lending library through the Center. We have so many students coming in and asking, ‘Do you have any books in English I can borrow?’ And I always tell them no, but that I hope one day we will have such a thing.”
CRIKEY. You don’t have to tell me twice.
You love English? You love books? You have a visitor who loves English and books and who believes in very few things, but she absolutely believes in the civic good done by and the transformational power of libraries?
Oh, WE WILL GET YOU A LENDING LIBRARY, MY FRIENDS. There will be a lending library.
At first, I thought the library would be small, consisting of the 14 novels I brought with me for personal reading.
But then. Those generous-hearted friends and family in the States kicked into action. Some of those who were gathering books for Lilya realized they could make contributions that could have an even larger impact.
Over the next couple months, as boxes and envelopes of books kept arriving, I learned to negotiate the lines, bureaucracy, and language barriers at the post office.
And when the first stack of books was set onto the big white table in the Center, and Olga realized her far-off dream was actually happening, cried. she
The books kept coming — from a fierce former student who always gets the job done; from a purple-haired slayer in England (shipped twice because they were returned the first time); from one of my high school speech coaches who, in her retirement, breathes libraries; in the suitcase of a go-getter pal who came to visit; from a friend in Oregon whose compassion is built into her marrow; from a fellow blogger who said, after her first shipment arrived, “Now I’m going to send the John Lewis graphic novel trilogy”; from my neighbor across the street and a book group that has been meeting for more than 45 years; from my husband who collected and humped more than 50 books in his suitcase at Christmas time.
So the stacks grew. A plan was made for building a shelving area in a new, dedicated Language Center room across the hall from the main office.
As a few of us gathered the other day to celebrate and document the stacks of books — to appreciate the glory of this burgeoning library before I depart — we laughed, we chatted, we talked about books we have loved, we recommended books from the stacks, we peered over each other’s shoulders. In a disheartening world of oligarchs, standoffs, violence, and petulant one upmanship, there was, during a half hour my heart will never forget, a small corner of the world where a group of readers rejoiced in the generosity and kindness of strangers.
So thank you, Deanna, Mia, Michelle, Sue, Jan, Shari, Mary Beth, and Byron.
And, of course: thank you, Lilya. Because it all started with you.