Can literature lift people out of poverty?
Jim McLaughlin tells Sarah Freeman about his scheme to inspire deprived communities through books headed for landfill.
Jim McLaughlin has spent much of his life finding uses for things no one else wants.
He played an instrumental role in the launch of kerbside recycling in Doncaster and has long supported the town’s Re-Furnish charity which finds new homes for second hand furniture. So when he saw a skip-load of books destined for an incinerator he felt compelled to step in.
“There was 10 tonnes of books about to be burnt, I just couldn’t let that happen,” he says. “They belonged to a book dealer who had basically gone through them, picked out the ones of value and the rest were deemed to be of no use. Economically it didn’t make any sense for them to hang onto them, but I couldn’t believe that the only option was the incinerator.”
Jim arranged to take the books off the dealer’s hands and as he began searching through the piles of paperbacks he noticed that there was a large number of children books.
“I was an avid reader as a child, I loved books like Stig of the Dump and Brer Rabbit, but I also know that for many families books are a luxury they can’t afford,” says Jim, who spent six months developing the Re-Read model. “It quickly became clear that low income households aren’t buying books and children in low income families have low literacy rates.
“The cost of food essentials has gone up by 28 per cent since 2008, but the average cost of wages has only gone up by nine per cent. We have all witnessed the rise of food banks in our communities, but now there is a crisis of poor literacy rates.”
Jim’s idea was simple. Take the unwanted books, sell as many as possible online and then plough the profit into the social enterprise which gives books away for free to schools, children’s groups and low income families.
Since launching in 2012, the organisation has given away 53,000 books and currently has more than 60,000 for sale online. It has received some funding from the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, as well as the South Yorkshire Key Fund and Community Foundation, but it is looking to secure further investment.
“In 2011 alone, 229m books were bought in the UK, which represented an increase of 42 per cent over the previous 10 years,” says Jim. “How many of those are already being left unread and forgotten in attics and cellars or discarded to find their way into landfill or incineration?
“When we first began Re-Read my daughter, who is a primary school teacher, came to look through the books we had saved. She couldn’t believe it. For her, it was like discovering a treasure trove. She and a colleague went away with a couple of boxes of books which the school just wouldn’t have been able to provide. I knew then that there was a real need for books in our community.”
Thanks to Jim’s persistence the scheme has also attracted the support of celebrities with Barnsley-born author Joanne Harris and the irrepressible Brian Blessed both now signed up as patrons.
“Adventure is at the heart of human endeavour,” says Mexborough-born Blessed. “And I am a great believer that books can offer us a gateway into a glorious world of adventures and encourage us to reach for the stars. I have written my own books and as an actor have brought alive the work of the world’s greatest writers and there is no greater gift than inspired words.
“One of the biggest crimes of deprivation is illiteracy. When I was growing up, it was unheard of for a coal-miner’s son to go to drama school, but I got a scholarship and am a living example that with the right encouragement and access to inspired minds, children can achieve anything.”
For more details about Re-Read call 01302 728930 or go to ww.reread.org.uk.