The Fabulous Peace Corps Book Locker, Part II
In the summer of 1964, Jack Prebis (Ethiopia 1962-64) returned from overseas and was responsible for putting the books together for the 3rd edition of the Peace Corps locker. Here is Jack’s recollection of that job and his collection of books for the famous Peace Corps book locker.
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 begun work on “the booklocker” was heading back 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 paperback 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 sale. With that bit of knowledge, I obtained such titles as The Palm-Wine Drinker and Blossoms in the Dust.
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 section like “American Studies” and “African-or LA or NANESA, depending on the destination-Studies.” 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.)
Clearance hurdles I had not anticipated were the State Department and USIA. After some concessions on their part over a few titles, there remained two objections: No Exit and Catch 22. 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.
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Thanks so much for the article! And I thank all for those early book lockers. I never thought of what might have gone into the choice of books. Your memories of your job in PC gave me a good chuckle. We don’t have those book lockers any more and I am sure there are many places, such as Chongqing, where they would be most appreciated.
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[…] mid-May John wrote about the “Fabulous Peace Corps Locker” — Part I, Part II and Part III. For a time Jack Prebis (Ethiopia 1962–64) was in charge of selecting the books for […]
I was writing up a memoir on my Peace Corps experience in Ecuador, 1963-1965, and had referenced the book locker(s). So to my delight I found this background material. The lockers were a godsend for a lonely, isolated Volunteer and I thank you for your good work.
I initially started out with a “used” locker passed down from a departing volunteer in Loja, Ecuador, but when I got my very own locker with 250 books I was thrilled! It was like Christmas all over again. Enjoyed at that time everything from Campus Humor and the Tin Drum to heavier items like the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
Sorry they discontinued the practice.