To Preserve and to Learn

The Fabulous Peace Corps Booklocker
by Jack Prebis (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    For a short period of time in the very first years of the Peace Corps all Volunteers were given booklockers by the agency. The lockers were meant to provide leisure reading for the PCVs and then to be left behind in schools, villages, and towns where they served. There is some mystery as to who first thought of the lockers and one rumor has it that the idea came from Sarge Shriver’s wife, Eunice.
         It is believed that the books were selected for the first locker by a young Foreign Service officer. A second selection was done in 1964, and that same year Jack Prebis was made responsible for the 3rd edition of the locker that was assembled in the fall and winter of 1965.

    DEVELOPING THE Peace Corps booklocker was the best job I ever had. As sometimes happens with fun jobs, this one fell in my lap. Returning in 1964 from my secondary school teaching stint in Ethiopia, I headed to Our Nation’s Capital, hoping to land stateside Peace Corps work. Back in those days, the Peace Corps was fresh, free-wheeling and unbureaucratic, shot through with idealists. (Thanks in part to the five-year rule, it remains staffed with idealists.)
         To my good fortune, as I was being interviewed — was it by fifteen people? — the person who had been working on “the booklocker” was heading to Chile on staff. My biology major and chemistry minor seemed perfect for the unexpected vacancy.
         After dispatching a mile-high stack of unanswered mail from publishers wanting to donate their remaindered titles (we already had a warehouse full of books totally unsuited to host country needs, aspiration and mores), I got down to my major function — feet on desk, reviewing paperbacks for inclusion in the next booklocker.
         What power! Aside from deciding what Volunteers and their friends would be reading over the next few years, with 4,000 footlockers to fill with 250 books each, I soon learned I wielded some influence. It was tough resisting the offers of free trips to New York City and attendant free lunches. But I learned quickly that publishers often were happy to do press runs of hardback or out of print titles if they had a guaranteed 4,000-book sale. With that bit of knowledge, I obtained such titles as The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola and Blossoms in the Dust: The Human Factor in Indian Development by Kusum Nair [available used from Amazon].
         I also learned that my English-Literature- major friends had something concrete to offer (as opposed to being skilled Botticelli players). They were more than happy to help review contemporary titles and offer suggestions on the classics — with never a consensus on either, I might add.
         But eventually, I developed a good mix of fiction (over half the books) and other sections like “American Studies” and “African—or LA or NANESA [North Africa, Near East, South Asia], Studies” depending on the destination. Debated along the way: Was Henry Ford a suitable example of American industrialization and the free enterprise system? (More or less). Or, would Ayn Rand stimulate depression and early terminations? (One couldn’t be too careful.)
         There were clearance hurdles I had not anticipated with the State Department and USIA. After some concessions on their part over a few titles, there remained two objections: No Exit [an existential play by Jean Paul Sartre] and Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. Finally, I agreed that we didn’t need to export the Communist line, but contended that Catch 22, in spite of depicting the U.S. military in a less-than-complimentary light, likely would not get wide distribution among host country nationals, but would be good escape reading on quiet nights. And so it was.

    Peace Corps Writers pays homage to the booklockers of yore with occasional recommendations from our editor, John Coyne, of books and fine writing from RPCVs, and about and relating to the Peace Corps. By coincidence, John has a Booklocker recommendation in this issue.