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Is it blasphemous to imagine that books can be part of a ponzi scheme? But when text messages, social media posts and emails promise you 36 books in exchange for one, you have to wonder who or what is sitting at the top of this pyramid.

The formula has remained the same over the years and so has the text of such posts/messages. They begin by saying ‘I am looking for someone to participate in a huge book exchange’ and then go on to give details about how one can get ‘36 BOOKS’. 

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When it first came out approximately five to six years ago, the ’36 books’ bit was enough to draw people in. Now, a look at comments below such posts reveal an initial excitement and chorus of multiple ‘I’m in’. But later on, one can see the hesitancy creep in — “I’m in, if it’s real”, “hope this is not a fraud’, “36 books is impossible”.

Fraudulent or not, these large book exchanges calling strangers to get together and pick out titles for each other, has been an enduring tradition during the holiday season, if nothing else.

I haven’t ever heard about anyone actually getting a total of 36 books. However, over the years, this book exchange has been fairly successful for a lot of people. A close friend got about five books as part of this exchange, which is not a bad deal.

Over the years, a healthy scepticism has seeped in with these ‘too good to be true’ exchanges. This can be attributed to the many reports exposing them as pyramid schemes. Some of them make it sound like there is a mafia at the end of the chain that is raking in all of your books and money.


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The lockdown relevance

One has to admit that this year especially, when it is all about maintaining social distance, such a book exchange makes a lot of sense. There has been a dearth of collective experiences in general because we were confined to our homes. And fostering a sense of literary kinship has been particularly hard with bookstores, libraries and even parks becoming inaccessible.

Not just for the emotional quotient, buying more books will also give the publishing industry the heft it needs to crawl out of the economic ditch that the pandemic has pushed it into. So it is actually a great opportunity for people to do their bit. ‘Tis the season of giving, after all.


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Healthy scepticism combined with bibliophile enthusiasm

While the idea of a book mafia is pretty cool, it is actually unclear who or what started this viral trend. Or if there is even a top boss at the apex of the pyramid, raking in some moolah. It just re-emerges every year and people participate in it. Some get books, some do not — either way, the fact that it is a constant that has come up once again, has a quiet reassurance to it.

And let’s be honest, is it even fraud if you’re essentially handing out books? As a Facebook user succinctly puts it, “It’s fundamentally a pyramid scheme, only instead of investing money for potentially no return you’re giving someone a book for potentially no return and I do that sometimes anyway.”


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Aiding a flailing industry

Buying books also does more good than harm, especially for the publishing industry. Even before a global pandemic, the paperback and hardcover industry was flailing.

During the nationwide lockdown in India, which was imposed in March, book sales were zero because only the sale of essential items was allowed. And for a country where almost 85 per cent of books in circulation are physical copies, this left the industry gasping.

Even literary festivals, which are a major revenue garner for the publishing industry and common meeting ground for bibliophiles, shifted to online platforms. While their ingenuity to keep the show going should be applauded, it is just not the same with grainy video and faulty technology ruining the entire experience of interacting with an author.


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The online revival

With the bad also came the good. Book clubs which were a dying institution were revived online due to the pandemic. Several tiny clubs that cropped up within the vicinity of a college or a school, and even bigger clubs like the Delhi Book Club are thriving online.

And what are such exchanges, if not part of a bigger club of bibliophiles where the simple act of giving one of your favourite titles to someone else has the potential of not only reviving an industry but also reinforcing the need for literature and reading.

But be forewarned, it is not always a pleasant experience. Because for someone, a favourite novel could very well be Fifty Shades of Grey.

A colleague participated in one such book exchange during her college years and well, it left a lot to be desired. She thoughtfully curated and bought a selection of her favourite novels, using the meagre funds available to a college student, and sent them across to strangers. But in return, all she got was a racy teenage novel. Talk about a heartbreak.

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