The power of storytelling is both undeniable and everlasting. It has likely been a part of our entire existence, in some form or another, helping us learn lessons and to feel compassion.
Today, we study literature from a young age – learning about our histories, far away worlds and influential people. Whether we notice or not, these stories – both fiction and non-fiction – guide us throughout our lives. They allow us to see the world through another’s eyes, open up our world and teach us about every subject known to man.
Despite their importance, many people throw out their old books – laying waste the wisdom that lies on each page. In an effort to save this knowledge and share it with those less fortunate, a garbage man in Bogota, Columbia has been saving discarded books for 20 years and sharing them with those in need.
“I realized that people were throwing books away in the rubbish. I started to rescue them,” said Gutierrez. The first book he found was a copy of the classic novel Anna Karenina.
The Tolstoy book was later joined by The Little Prince, Sophie’s World, The Iliad and a number of novels by Colombian master Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Today, he has amassed around 25,000 discarded books.
His growing collection didn’t go unnoticed. Gutierrez’s neighbors were soon borrowing the books to help with their children’s homework. “There was a lack of them in our neighborhood, so we started to help,” said Gutierrez.
The ground floor of Gutierrez’s home is now filled with books, from floor to ceiling. Over spilling with books, he opened it up as a free library, with the help of his wife Luz Mery Gutierrez and their three children, in 2010.
Word eventually spread around about Gutierrez and his books. Most of his stock now comes from donations. Overwhelmed by the amount of support, he now travels around the country, delivering free books to poor and remote districts. The library, named La Fuerza de las Palabras, Spanish for “The Strength of Words,” has donated books to some 235 schools, institutions and community libraries across Colombia.
“We have a blessed curse upon us,” he said. “The more books we give away, the more come to us.”
Though he never got past primary school as a student, he is now dubbed “The Lord of the Books.” Reports say he plans to study for his school leaver’s exam, which he had been unable to take when he was younger.
Gutierrez’s love of literature stems from his mother, who had read to him as a child in the country shack where he grew up. “It was she who enlightened me,” he says.
Among the many people who have reached out to Gutierrez, was a former fighter in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The fighter had asked for books, in the hopes that reading will help them learn and train for new jobs.
“Books transformed me, so I think books are a symbol of hope for those places,” Gutierrez said. “They are a symbol of peace.”