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One Man's Crusade for 'Room to Read' for Children Without Books

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"Perhaps, Sir, you will someday come back with books." The words were uttered in 1998 by the headmaster of a grade school in Bahundanda, Nepal -- that had a library, but no books -- to John Wood, a stressed out American senior executive at Microsoft, who was trekking the area's famed Annapurna Circuit. "...maybe if you went high enough into the Himalayas, you could not hear Steve Ballmer (CEO of Microsoft) screaming at you," Wood had told a friend before the trip.

The headmaster's remark, less a Jedi mind trick than the formal vernacular of British English spoken in the East, would irrevocably change Wood's life and eventually the lives of impoverished children and girls in Nepal, Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Vietnam and Zambia. www.roomtoread.org

Wood's just released book, "Creating Room to Read: A Story of Hope in the Battle for Global Literacy," a sequel to his stellar, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, is a riveting memoir, an inspirational handbook for social innovators, a career guide for young people, a witness for children in faraway places who could go under if we turn away, and alternative policy for the architects of American foreign policy and expensive wars.

Bahundanda was only the third stop of the three week trek through one of the great natural wonders of the world, a perfect setup conspired by the forces of the universe to initiate Wood into his life's calling. This was Jungian synchronicity at work--at high altitude, on the roof of the world, on behalf of children in peril in the developing world.

Wood was living the expat high life in Australia at the time while leading Microsoft's push in Asia. At 35, he was by every definition a Master of the Universe living an enchanted life. He lived in Sydney in an apartment overlooking the harbor, had a a company car and driver at his disposal, and a glamorous girlfriend with a dueling resume. Within a year, Wood gave up his old life to join the long line of idealistic fools enamored with the Quixotic enterprise of trying to change the world.

Gary White, co-founder with actor, Matt Damon of water.org --which funds clean water projects in Africa and India -said that he was inspired throughout his career in water engineering by a particular notion. "Your life should be about finding the intersection of the world's greatest need and your greatest passion." Wood recalls reading as the most significant experience of his childhood. "It is impossible for me to imagine a childhood that wasn't filled with books."

With a motivated team of co-creators and zealous 'boots on the ground' country leaders who yearned to see their nation's children educated, Room to Read grew at hyperspeed. Since 1998, Room to Read has impacted the lives of millions of children in the developing world stretching across two continents. It has built more than 12,000 libraries. Nearly 10 million books were checked out by children from Room to Read libraries. Girls who desperately want to be educated receive scholarships, books, backpacks, school uniforms, and women mentors to keep them in school.

Wood, a classic obsessional workaholic, took his executive coach's words - "Figure out what you want to say on your deathbed, Then work backwards from there." - literally. Everything was sacrificed to his cause to bring books and education to children the world had found easy to ignore.

Creating Room to Read is the second book in a planned trilogy. Read it, as well as Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, if you wake up Monday mornings tempted to send a "take this job and shove it," email to the boss, or if you're a young person wanting to know what to do with your life, or if you want to find a way to help the dispossessed become possessed of their own worth and dignity, or if you just want to read about risk and self-actualization. "The pearl is the oyster's autobiography," Fellini once wrote. Wood's books compel you to think about the nature of work and right livelihood, risk and consequences, service to others as a key to happiness, and money and the meaning of life.