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19 December 2005updated 27 Sep 2015 3:00am

The homeless deserve new books, too

You wouldn't give a friend a second-hand gift, so why a stranger in need?

By Charlie Lee-Potter

This Christmas the writer Susan Hill is asking friends to donate just one brand-new book each to Crisis, the charity for the homeless. Her generous-hearted idea is to create an inspiring library of new books from which the homeless can choose. Crisis offers food, medical care and company at Christmas. This year it will be providing sustenance in the form of a book, too.

I loved the idea and logged on to Amazon immediately. The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux felt just right and, as I pressed the “confirm” button, a reassuring message appeared to say that my choice was on its way to the Crisis library. Still fired with enthusiasm, I forwarded Susan Hill’s e-mail to other writer friends. Almost immediately I received the equivalent of a sharp smack on the wrist from the one person I had been most confident would sign up. “Charlie,” his e-mail admonished sternly, “it seems to me that this is a very expensive way of going about gathering books, when well-chosen second-hand books could come for free . . . perhaps it’s the zippy convenience of going online and having it over and done with.”

I began to worry that he was right. Does the ease with which we can buy online neutralise the deed itself? If I had had to go to a bookshop for my book, wrap it up and take it to a post office, would I have done it?

And, more crucially, are we so obsessed with brand-new, sparkling, pristine things that we sneer at perfectly serviceable second-hand goods?

My own well-read copy of The Great Railway Bazaar would have been just as entertaining as the brand-new version I sent to Crisis. Should I have posted my second-hand copy and made a cash donation to go with it?

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Perhaps I should have sent a box of old books instead of just a single new one. And it’s true that it took me less than one minute online to Amazon to make my conscience-salving donation.

But I refuse to accept that giving to charity has to be a pragmatic, cost-effective, joyless enterprise. Why must it always involve a prudent, careful eye on “the best use of resources” to be of any use? Sometimes, there are other ways of doing things. To me, there are few pleasures greater than a freshly printed, crisply aromatic new novel, whose pages are still clamped rigidly shut.

Those seeking shelter this Christmas are in far greater need of food and warmth than they are of a good book. But when we’ve eaten, warmed our aching feet and dried our damp clothes, we need other forms of comfort, too, to make life bearable. I can see nothing but goodness in the idea of donating a new book.

The worst kind of giving is the sort that expects something in return. The most lucrative way to raise money is to throw a glitzy fundraiser, otherwise known as the Charity Ball. In exchange for £250, your guests can have a three-course dinner, a dance to Abba’s greatest hits and a luxury auction of autographed cricket bats. It’s a case of give . . . and take. The guests clustered at the candlelit tables would be horrified if any of the people for whom they are raising the money actually turned up.

The slow but reliable way to make money is to sell second-hand donations. But charities all over the country will tell you what happens when they ask for other people’s cast-offs. They receive some generous and valuable things. And they’re showered with mounds of junk.

I’ve just bought three items at a second-hand sale to raise money for children’s charities. The box containing the DVD of Pingu was empty, the paperback had the middle pages missing and the wind-up radio neither wound up nor worked.

Helping to hang clothes on rails at another charity sale recently, I found myself wading through carrier bags crammed with torn and stained clothes and, in one horrible case, dirty knickers.

Giving to charity often means dumping things we neither love nor care about, to make space for the brand-new things we feel we deserve.

If you’re homeless, the second-hand, the recycled and the faded are a way of life. I just don’t see what’s so shocking about being given something that is good for the health, nourishing to the mind and, above all, something which no one else has sucked all the life from first.

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