3 September 2010

Dan Brown Tops Oxfam's 'Least Wanted' Chart

In a snobbish but interesting piece, the Guardian lists the top ten chart of books donated to Oxfam. Dan Brown is at Number 1 and is categorized as the author whose books people most want shot of; while Ian Rankin, at Number 2, is far more charitably treated. Frankly, books is books, and any book is better than no book; and no one, but no one, especially a journalist, has the right to judge others’ tastes in reading.

Besides its run-of-the-mill charity shops, Oxfam also has a number of dedicated bookstores, and is “the third-biggest bookseller in the UK, and Europe’s biggest high street retailer of second-hand books”.

The number of books being donated has fallen by about 15% over the summer, while the number of books being bought has increased by 6%. The charity’s Head of Retail Operations blames the quagmire of austerity into which we have blundered.

These figures may indicate that people are (a) buying fewer new books and (b) buying second-hand instead. One should not read too much into them, but I suspect that the rise of electronic reading may also be having an impact, particularly on commerce in the sort of paperback fiction that is rarely re-read. Austerity or no, Oxfam should prepare itself for a steep decline in book donations.

The article doesn’t raise the moral questions about Oxfam’s trade in books, questions as complicated as life itself.


1. Charitable works are funded.

2. Books are recycled, saving trees, printing ink, and whatnot.

3. The books are not burnt, keeping their carbon content out of the atmosphere, which is a merit if you believe in anthropogenic global warming.

4. Nor do they go into landfill, an undoubted merit.

5. People pay, on average, a mere £1.60 for a book, so reading is encouraged.


1. It has been argued that authors, literary agents, publishers and the sellers of new books are deprived of income every time a second-hand book is sold, depressing the literary trade – but I am not so sure of this: like public libraries, second-hand bookstores may act as showcases for little-known writers.

2. Oxfam ships the books around the country, burning fossil fuels, a demerit for AGW believers.

3. Are we secure in the knowledge that the largesse dispensed by Oxfam finds the right home?

4. Further: is the mere existence of such an NGO an indictment of the West’s failure to trade fairly with the developing world?

5. Further still: might Oxfam’s beneficiaries be incited to tackle the corruption and incompetence endemic in their ruling elites, the source of so much misery, if charitable donations, like foreign aid, were withheld?

I don’t pretend to know the answers to the last three questions, but even something as apparently simple as giving your copy of The Da Vinci Code to a local charity shop turns out not to be simple at all.

Such complexity is the province of the philosopher rather than the journalist; it is also the province of the novelist, whose philosophizing is dressed up in the trappings of fiction. And the more fiction one writes and the longer one lives, the harder it is to take any newspaper story at face value ... especially where money is concerned.

No comments: