The first time I heard about Living Books was at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George. A very forward-thinking librarian had decided to try it by asking people representing various parts of the community to volunteer to let students “check them out”. A student wanting to understand more about the Carrier Group of First Nations or the gay and lesbian community or the experience of being an immigrant could schedule a half hour to “read” one of the volunteer “books”.
The idea originated in Denmark. When a young man was brutally attacked, five of his friends decided to start a peer-group education and awareness movement. They figured if people could understand each other, they would be more tolerant. So they put people together, like a policeman and a graffiti artist, a politician and a young activist, a football fan and a feminist.
The idea was so successful it has gone global. For this year’s “living books” event at the Toronto Reference Library, 40 human books volunteered, including philanthropists, writers, entrepreneurs, disease survivors, gay rights advocates, and street artists. At the St. Joseph Learning Commons, two formerly homeless, drug addicted men were among the “books”. University of Alberta volunteers were prepared to talk about wrestling with substance abuse, agriculture issues, domestic violence, depression, and being a woman on the police force.
It’s normal to wonder about people whose experience falls outside our own. Unfortunately, that curiosity is often colored with prejudices we pick up over the course of our lives. The chance to sit down and ask open questions could change that.
Listening to someone talk about Living Books on CBC recently, I thought of a quote from F. Scott Peck’s Different Drum:
As long as we look out at each other only through the masks of our composure, we are looking through hard eyes. But as the masks drop and we see the suffering and courage and brokenness and deeper dignity underneath, we truly start to respect each other as fellow human beings.