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Homeless Man Works to Spread Literacy by Giving Away Free Books

A man called “the Pavement Bookworm” by local media and a documentary of the same name is two things: homeless and extremely hopeful. Philani Dladla is proof that it just doesn’t do to judge a book by its cover. Looking at him is one thing: he usually goes around wearing a flat-billed baseball cap, a colorful striped shirt and a lot of beads around his neck—knowing him is another: Philani has dedicated himself to the spread of literacy throughout the low-income student populace. For Philani Dladla, books are more than just interesting stories: they say that they’re what saved him from drugs, poverty and alcoholism.

Young, homeless and without the ability to pay for higher education, Philani Dladla was once on the brink of self-destruction. He was on the cusp of serious addiction when instead of doing drugs, he began to read: all the time, as much as he could.

Philani Dladla has made it his life’s mission to spread education to students from disadvantaged backgrounds: one way or another.

Thus far, Mr. Dladla has done this by giving away free books to passersby and holding impromptu book club meetings with strangers passing by his self-assigned spot of pavement, which changes from time to time: he says that reading is a very important part of learning empathy and being able to persevere through the difficulties of life. Philani gives away most of the books to people who ask and even reviews books on-the-spot for those who ask him about them. As a way of earning money for himself and a lot of his homeless friends, the Pavement Bookworm leaves out bin for people to donate money to him as he reviews books. He says that it’s very important for literacy to become widespread despite the fact that a lot of people remain formally uneducated—only through having the ability to read and write are people able to truly understand the world and how to become good people. Furthermore, he says that the people he likes reaching out to the most are people who aren’t educated formally or who are thinking of quitting school: before they get to that point, he says, they need to know that it is worthwhile to educate yourself and that literacy is the only way that you can pull yourself out of poverty.

He goes on to say that reading is a habit that you can definitely form, no matter what your age: read every day, read as much as you can and it becomes a lifestyle, an irrevocable part of your life. Furthermore, Philani’s says that you don’t need to be rich to save the world—last Monday, James Patterson donated 45,000 books to schools all over New York. Mr. Dladla says that he really admires this about the author and that he hopes his smaller project will have a similar impact. A documentary shot about Philani Dladla is going to be released later this year.

True to the rationale of his project, Mr. Dladla’s efforts are very quickly becoming widespread. Through the help of the documentary being released worldwide, the Pavement Bookworm is quickly gaining popularity and funds—being able to help out homeless students everywhere. Philani Dladla was recently visited by author Steven Sidley (best known for his novel Entanglement) who spend a few hours talking with him about books before gifting him the latest addition to his collection.

Philani Dladla says that he is very happy about all the media attention and he hopes that the Pavement Bookworm will become something with a bigger audience, being able to inspire people from all around the world to keep reading and to continue learning. Education is extremely important, Mr. Dladla says—we get it in every which way that we can.

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