by Erin Mitchell
April 23 was World Book Night. In case you missed it, this was the night on which thousands of people in the US, Ireland and UK gave away millions of books. To strangers. For free. The idea is to find people who are reluctant or infrequent readers, and put a book in their hands that they’ll read, thereby encouraging them to read more.
When WBN happened last year in the UK, I hoped it would come to America. I was thrilled when it did, and I scampered right over and applied to be a giver. My first choice for giveaway book was Michael Connelly’s BLOOD WORK. I figured that because the author is a big name and lives locally—and because it’s a great book (horrible movie aside)—it would be the perfect title to give.
I was thrilled—like, let out a squeal thrilled—when I got the email that I’d been accepted as a giver and that I’d be giving my first-choice book.
In the weeks and months following that notification, it became obvious that the WBN America folks had slightly underestimated the size and scope of their undertaking. They had to coordinate getting the books printed (these were special WBN editions), having them delivered to pick-up points selected by givers, and coordinate getting the right info to the right people. This would not have been so tough if they were dealing with just, say, 5,000 pick-up points and givers, but 25,000? That’s an epic undertaking.
Thankfully, though, they persevered.
My pick-up point was a local Barnes & Noble. The thing is, it’s a college store, and I’d never actually set foot in it before. When I phoned, though, I had a lovely conversation with the store manager, which continued when I went to pick up my books. She’s someone I’ll keep in touch with. Score one for WBN.
When Monday morning arrived, the reality of being a giver hit me. I was going to have to give books to strangers. Which meant talking with them. Which is not my strong suit. I mean, I’m quite good in any kind of business setting, but just out in the world? Not so much. I hadn’t really thought this through. I wasn’t alone, though, and thankfully, found a bunch of Twitter friends who helped ease my anxiety. And my husband accepted being drafted into helping me.
As evening fell, we headed to the Greyhound station. I mean, anyone getting on a bus for a long period of time must want a good book to read, right? And let’s be honest: folks riding Greyhound probably don’t have a bunch of disposable income to be buying books. Turns out the local station is small, but there were five guys there. The dude behind the counter looked mighty skeptical when I started into my spiel, and I quickly realized I needed to specify that I was not from a religious organization. Once I did that, he accepted the book, and as I kept extolling its virtues, his attitude changed. He said, “Hey, I now I feel like I just got a free book!” “That’s because you did,” I told him. One other guy took a book gratefully, another reluctantly, and the remaining two turned me down cold.
Next stop, the local bus depot. Some people there were skeptical—like the woman who said she’s read the book if I also gave her $1 (I did)—but others were thrilled, like the young woman who took out her earbuds to talk with me and the gentleman who was almost finished with the battered Grisham paperback in his hand.
On a roll, we proceeded to Williams Park, the local hangout of St. Petersburg’s homeless population. Our logic was that these folks couldn’t readily afford books and therefore might not have read one in a while. We were mostly right; the first guy asked who he could thank and whether there was a toll-free number he could call to “give kudos.” As we walked away, he called after us, “Now I can be a reader again!” We did get a couple of fuck-offs, had to explain to each person that we weren’t handing out religious tracts, and three times had to admit that no, I’m not Michael Connelly and I didn’t write the book, but overall, the park was a success.
After a brief stop for some dinner, we headed back to the bus depot with the remaining books. We met a family (mom, older daughter, and toddler son) who were recently arrived from Haiti, and after I explained WBN to them en français, they were thrilled to have a book with which to practice reading in English. The quote of the night, though, came from the very last book recipient, a bus driver who looked completely exhausted and in no mood for a pitch of any sort. He listened to me, took a book, grunted as he examined the cover and said, “I used to read. It’s been years. Guess it’s time to take it up again.”
Yes, Mr. Driver. Yes, it is.