Maria Keller Q&A

February 15, 2021
At age 8, Maria Keller made it a goal to donate 1 million books. She's now over 2 million.

“We received about 40,000 books from The Child’s World, a children’s book publisher in Mankato. We didn’t have the warehouse space yet, so a semi-truck full of books arrived outside our house. It was just so bizarre and seemed so out of place in our ordinarily quiet neighborhood. I remember the boxes almost rose to the ceiling of our two-car garage. I think we have a picture somewhere of my brother, who was five at the time, sitting on top of the boxes reading a book. That was the first time I realized Read Indeed was growing into something I never could have anticipated.”

When was the moment when you sensed that Read Indeed could grow? Was it a bit terrifying?

I think the first moment when I was really overwhelmed by Read Indeed was in the first year, so 2009. We received about 40,000 books from The Child’s World, a children’s book publisher in Mankato. We didn’t have the warehouse space yet, so a semi-truck full of books arrived outside our house. It was just so bizarre and seemed so out of place in our ordinarily quiet neighborhood. I remember the boxes almost rose to the ceiling of our two-car garage. I think we have a picture somewhere of my brother, who was five at the time, sitting on top of the boxes reading a book. That was the first time I realized Read Indeed was growing into something I never could have anticipated. I don’t think it was quite terrifying, actually, it was exciting. Only later did I understand the intense pressures of developing Read Indeed to its full potential amplified by the pressures of growing up.

You implemented a policy of letting volunteers take books home before re-donating them. Which titles stick out to you as most popular take-homes?

Yes, that policy was popular, as most of our volunteers are children. It connected them in some small way to the experience of the kids they were helping, so they could understand the joys of picking out books of their own. although most of them already owned books. The most popular titles were usually recently released books by popular authors, such as the newest Rick Riordan book.

You’ve spoken about the concept of memento-mori being important to you. What does that concept mean to you?

I really started to learn more about memento-mori spirituality in high school, but it did not significantly impact me until college. For me, it means always keeping my finitude in my mind, and evaluating my choices and actions in light of my death. I think it’s easy in modern life to lose sight of your death. We’re so busy consuming the world that we forget that it’s not possible to possess the world. We are all eventually forced to give it up. However, this form of spirituality is very powerful, and therefore dangerous. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you already have a strong spiritual life because, if you don’t, it could throw you into a carpe diem philosophy, which, at least for me, leads naturally to nihilism. Ultimately, as far as I understand, true memento-mori spirituality can achieve an internal paradox, where you are both extremely detached and extremely attached to the world; I’m applying a concept from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. It helps me recognize that I should love the world, but only insofar as it brings me closer to God, but I should not love the world in itself, apart from how it draws me to God. But it should also give all of my actions greater significance because my finite actions influence how I participate in the infinite divine life. Of course, I haven’t come anywhere close to fully recognizing that, as I’m still definitely fallen and sinful. I actually wish I had a stronger spiritual life before really diving into memento-mori spirituality.

Your brother now manages the organization while you study at Notre Dame. How has it been starting and scaling Read Indeed with your family?

The extraordinary experiences we’ve shared through Read Indeed have brought us all much closer and allowed us to learn more about each other in unorthodox ways, deepening our relationships. Even when I was little, my parents were really great about making sure I was still leading Read Indeed, and making decisions, even though they were helping with many of the tasks that I could not accomplish on my own, such as filing for 501(c)3 status with the IRS. I never really went through a rebellious phase, partially because that’s not really in my disposition and partially because my relationship with my parents was already fairly mature. I did not need to assert my own independence because I already was fairly independent in most things. My parents don’t trust me with everything, of course, but I think Read Indeed has helped our relationship grow stronger.

You’ve said that one of the pieces of your advice your father has given you is to speak slowly and loudly. Do you have any tips to pass on to the rest of us on how to do this?

I’m naturally very soft-spoken, and I’ve struggled with stage-fright. I never enjoyed any form of public speaking until I was 16, and I had a realization in the middle of a speech at the Kennedy Center: I had complete control of my audience for as long as I was on stage. This may seem fairly obvious to most people, but it changed how I respond to the pressures of public speaking, and how I act in the moment. If you know that the audience is hanging on your every word, you will feel free to take pauses and speak slowly and deliberately. Of course, in order for this to work, you have to make sure you practice your presentation so you know exactly what you want to say and how to say it. And to a certain degree, it just takes practice, especially if you’re naturally soft-spoken. I still struggle with this skill, of speaking loudly and slowly in daily life, but I learned to actually enjoy public speaking. It’s also important to remember that public speaking is easy to master if you practice, especially if you can have a script in front of you. There’s no shame in preparing what you’re going to say, and I tend to find that people are more coherent when they do so. Even in situations where you may not feel like you’re expected to say something, preparation can be very useful. I’ve learned this in my seminar classes at Notre Dame. Discussions will be more successful if you have notes from your reading and have taken some time to organize your thoughts about the reading.

What are you studying at Notre Dame? Is the campus as beautiful as it seems?

I’m studying in the Program of Liberal Studies (PLS), and the Medieval Institute! PLS is Notre Dame’s Great Books program. PLS provides me with a great breadth of knowledge, while my Medieval Studies major allows me to focus more on my particular interests, such as the history of English Catholicism. Yes, absolutely, the campus is gorgeous, although it does rain a lot. I’m on my way back to campus now, and I cannot express how excited I am to see Mary on the golden dome. I also tend to think campus looks best when it’s overcast, because everything tends to look a little more beautiful against a muted sky. So if you ever visit campus and you’re disappointed because it’s forecasted to be cloudy, don’t worry, you’ll actually be seeing campus at its best.

You’ve mentioned G.K. Chesterton and Flannery O’Connor as favorite authors. Have you always been drawn to spiritual writers?

Yes, absolutely! I tend to enjoy authors whose spirituality is strong but somewhat obscured. I find that 20th-century Catholic literary works often fulfill that desire. Of course, I admire authors whose works are more explicitly spiritual, but often I find myself to be out of my depth when reading those works. Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is one of my favorite books, precisely for this reason, because it contains hidden spiritual truths.

Who are you reading now?

I just finished reading Thomas Merton’s spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain with a book club over Notre Dame’s winter break. It’s about Merton’s conversion to Catholicism and how he finds his vocation with the Trappists. Obviously, I’m barely a spiritual infant, so much of it went over my head, but it was gorgeous and I would highly recommend it, particularly for those discerning a vocation to the religious life. I also just read Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience by William Blake. I’m a bit in-between books at the moment. I’m trying to decide what I want to read next. I’m considering reading Brighton Rock by Graham Greene, or maybe Helena by Evelyn Waugh.

What’s next for Read Indeed?

Read Indeed’s warehouse is closed permanently, and as an organization, we’re trying to become more efficient in fulfilling our mission by focusing entirely on purchasing new books and shipping them to kids around the world. We actually had been planning this new chapter for Read Indeed for a long time, and the COVID-19 pandemic only reinforced our decision. Right now, we are working on maintaining strong connections with Read Indeed’s supporters. The warehouse helped volunteers stay closely connected with Read Indeed’s mission. They would regularly interact with teachers and other recipients, who could express how important our mission is for their students. They would also be able to experience what it’s like to receive a book. Some of the ways we want to do this is increased social media activity, beginning a regular newsletter, and revamping our website; we completed this project last fall. We also want to make sure donors know where their books are going, and hopefully, send them any thank you cards and/or pictures we receive from the recipients. I would also like to promote the idea that donors can choose where their books go if they would like to. Perhaps a donor has a particular connection to an elementary school in Alabama, maybe they or a family member went to that school, and they would like their donation to go towards buying books for that school. We also want to work on coordinating more nationwide and world-wide book drives, hopefully after the COVID-19 pandemic is over. Eventually, after COVID-19 is no longer a threat, we would also like to organize more distribution events in the Twin Cities, to replace the tactile element of the warehouse and strengthen the connections between Read Indeed’s volunteers and recipients. Also, fortunately, now that we have moved out of our warehouse space, we have no overhead, so we can dedicate all donations to purchasing books for kids in need.