Recently, I happened upon a news story from a paper in India about a floating library, a giant ship of books, that was set to dock in Chennai. It sounded like something out of Borges, and I looked into it further. The MV Doulos is the world’s oldest active ocean-faring passenger ship. In its long life, dating back to 1914, it has sailed under four different names and been a freighter, a luxury liner and, during World War II, it served with the US Coast Guard. In 1977, the ship was acquired by Gute Bucher fur Alle e.V. (Good Books for All), a German non-profit, and since then it has sailed, loaded up with books, to 100 countries and 515 ports of call. The Doulos Web site’s description of what the ship does:
Doulos carries a stock of half a million books. In total, over 18 million visitors have come on board to browse the selection of 4,000 available titles. Titles cover a wide range of subjects, such as science, sports, hobbies, cookery, the arts, economics and medicine, as well as books on faith in God and living life in God’s service. The books have been carefully chosen to cater to interests of all ages, and keeping in mind the educational, social and moral needs of the local community. A large selection is devoted especially to children. Local language materials supplement the vast array of English books. The books are offered at a fraction of their retail value. In some ports significant quantities are also donated.
It sounds pretty amazing, but you’ll note as well the part in the above description about “faith in God and living life in God’s service.” Having, of course, never set foot on the Doulos, I wouldn’t want to pass judgement on their mission, and I hope that “Good Books for All” is one of those organizations that does not let religion subvert its secondary mission, but a look at a few news stories about the ship show that it is not without controversy.
In The Organizer an opposition weekly in India, there is an angry article about the ship’s current visit to the country: “The crew was trying to spread Christianity among the visitors rather than promoting reading habit.” Another article, this one in The Hindu, describes long waits to board, but not the religion issue.
Prior to the India visit, in Bahrain, the controversy was not over Christianity but that the ship violated rules against commercial activity by foreign entities, according to this Gulf Daily News story. It was eventually resolved. After a few searches, though, it seems clear that most folks appreciate the ship, even in places that might seem hostile to it, including Abu Dhabi, for example. In Mauritius, local booksellers have been angered by the cheap prices of the books on the ship.
The ship sounds like a complicated thing, noble and magical as it conveys books around the world, but vaguely sinister as it, according to some, pushes religion on visitors and undercuts locals. I’d like to see it for myself.