BOOK ME FOR 2014!
I got hooked on World Book Night (WBN) when it began in the United States last year. Women’s Memoirs invited me to write up my experience afterward. I had so much fun in 2012 that I reapplied to be a Giver this year. As a passionate reader, I was once again intrigued by the challenge of unearthing folks who just didn’t read much.
I live in Austin, Texas, so I selected the same local independent bookstore as last year — BookPeople: A Community Bound by Books — as my pickup spot for a box of specially printed books. When they arrived, BookPeople held a party for all the Givers, replete with jazz band, buffet, drinks, and mingling.
BookPeople had extra boxes of books, so I volunteered to locate twenty-three additional passionate readers before April 23 to be Givers. That mission turned out to be as exciting as finding people who didn’t read. Then I sat down to ponder where I might come across those fringe readers.
Have you ever plunked down on a bus-stop bench at the end of a long day — tired, hungry, cold — ready to head home as a chill wind started to blow? If this is your normal daily route, reading may not be high on your To Do list. What if someone walked up and handed you a book, out of the blue, and said, “Hey, it’s World Book Night! Do you enjoy reading? I sure do, and I’ve got a great book for you that I loved.”
Would your spirits lift? Might your curiosity cause you to crack the spine and read at least a word or two…or three…or maybe four? Even, perhaps, contemplate reading more books because the story was so good? Creating that scenario was my ardent hope.
Of the thirty title choices for this year’s World Book Night, I’d selected Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier to hand out. I’d really liked this story about a sixteen-year-old in Holland who crosses paths with one of the greatest Dutch artists — Johannes Vermeer. He painted scenes of everyday life around him in the 1600s. Chevalier imagined a story behind one of Vermeer’s most famous paintings, creating a fictional young woman named Griet to inspire the portrait and narrate the tale (later made into a movie).
When I visited one of my daughters on her Fulbright year in the Netherlands, we walked around the lovely city of Delft, where Vermeer had lived. Chevalier’s story, set in the seventeenth century, almost came alive for me there in the town square.
I sat in a recreated version of the painter’s studio at the Vermeer Centrum Delft. Vermeer’s famous Pearl Earring painting hangs in the Mauritshuis gallery in The Hague. The book’s themes explore beauty, art, marriage, and love. The story underscores the idea that money of one’s own can empower a woman and create a feeling of independence — even if it can’t be spent.
So on World Book Night, I took this story of everyday life in another country, in another time, and headed out to a setting of everyday life in my own city today — the bus stop.
I drove my car so I could cover a cross-section of routes quickly during rush hour, catching about ten people at the first stop. Initially, a young woman looked quizzical, but then took a copy as I explained the idea. I offered one to the young man next to her. “Oh, we can share,” he told me. “We’re together.” His girlfriend already had the book open, and he leaned over her shoulder to read along.
About six high schoolers lined the wall behind them, one appointing himself spokesperson for the entire group. “No, they don’t want any,” he told me in an authoritative voice, “but I’ll take one.” I handed him a book. Then I offered one to a girl in the crowd, who looked unsure until the spokesperson announced loudly amid snickers, “No, she can’t have one.” Her compliant stance in the wake of peer pressure sent me the clear but disappointing message that she would not be reading this story of empowerment that day.
Two other boys of high-school age, dressed in clothes several sizes too large for their bodies, stood aloof from the crowd. Ignoring the sardonic expressions on their faces, I walked over to ask them if they liked to read. Silently they shrugged their replies, but accepted a book each. As I walked back to the car, I saw they were both scanning the list of thirty WBN titles on the back cover. Well, that’s a start, I thought.
At my next stop, two young men were just getting off a bus.
“Do you like to read?”
“Yeah, I guess,” one replied. “Sort of,” the other one said. They each accepted a book in a noncommittal manner, and then crossed the street to await a bus from a different route. Later, when I passed through the intersection again, I noticed one of them sitting on the bench reading — Girl With a Pearl Earring. Yes!
I headed north, and spotted two middle-aged women chatting at a bus stop — one seated, one standing. I greeted them, explaining the WBN idea. Wary at first, one said she didn’t have time to read much. She asked me what the book was about. I told her, adding that I’d really enjoyed it myself. At that, they each stretched out a hand and then beamed down at the books they now owned. A third woman they seemed to know trudged up, her paraphernalia in a tote sack.
“She’s got a book for you!” one of the other ladies called to her excitedly. They pointed to the copy I proffered, which she finally accepted with raised eyebrow. All three seemed shocked at the mere act of kindness at the end of a long day, while thanking me over and over and over again as I left.
At my next stop, I found a man in a black t-shirt who was missing a couple teeth. He stood by another weathered man seated in a wheelchair. Standing Man grinned from ear to ear when I told him about World Book Night, eagerly grasping the book I tendered and quickly hugging it to his chest. Seated Man told me, “Thank you, but I’m blind. I wouldn’t be able to see it.” Standing Man patted his shoulder, saying: “I’ll read it to you.” Indeed, as I walked back to the car, I could hear the opening lines of Girl With a Pearl Earring rendered in a deep voice: “My mother did not tell me they were coming. Afterwards she said she did not want me to appear nervous.” I glanced back to see Seated Man listening intently.
Two young women got off a bus at another stop, viewing me in astonishment when I gave them each a book. They looked down at their volumes with uncertain delight. Simultaneously they turned to chorus, “Thank you so much!!!”
A burly man in a camouflage jacket, sitting apart from two young women. The trio said they didn’t read a lot but, curious about the book, each took a copy. Burly Man stuffed his in a backpack, but the two women curled the front covers around the spines and began reading.
An incoming cold front had picked up by the time I arrived at the next bench, where a man in a short-sleeved New York Mets t-shirt was rubbing his arms to keep warm. I hesitated, thinking he probably wouldn’t want a book, but persevered. To my surprise, even though he told me he didn’t read much, he smiled delightedly, accepted a copy, and started reading it on the spot — bringing to mind Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich: “How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand one who’s cold?”
The next duo couldn’t have been more excited, thanking me profusely. I had five copies of Montana Sky by Nora Roberts that another Giver had passed on to me, so I gave each person a different title. “Then we can trade when we finish,” the guy quietly suggested to the girl, who nodded at the wisdom of that approach.
Bus riders zeroed out after people got home for supper. I still had three books left, so I headed over to a hospital emergency room. One woman rushing in from the parking garage after dropping off her husband loved the idea, and joyfully accepted a book. In the ER waiting room sat a lone man in a disheveled state, who looked up through tired eyes at the book I presented, then held out his hand and said, “Sure.” He started reading immediately.
I had one book left with no one else in sight. I stood there, wondering if the guard could read on duty. Suddenly the doors to the treatment area swung open and a woman in a flowered dress inched her way out — moving very slowly and painfully, looking quite sad, clutching checkout papers in one hand. No one awaited her.
“Excuse me,” I said. “It’s World Book Night. May I give you a book to read?” I held out my last copy, just as I noticed one of her eyes was as black as night in a perfect round circle. I caught my breath as I realized that must be what’s called a “shiner.” I began to put together in my mind a rather dismal scenario of what might have caused it. As I considered retreating, the tiniest smile began to emerge at the corners of her mouth — just barely, only a couple millimeters. Tears formed in her downcast eyes as she summoned all the resources of energy remaining within her to claim the book. My heart had goosebumps. I sensed that book offer was the best event in her day. My brief glimpse of silent gratitude in her eyes as she peeked up was an eloquent note on which to end World Book Night for me.
How did I do? I distributed one box of twenty books, plus five surplus volumes from another Giver. These are not used books. They are brand-new special paperback editions donated by the publishers, printers, authors, and distributors. I also recruited twenty-three Givers to take twenty-three boxes of twenty books each out into the community — that’s 460 books. We were just a drop in the bucket though. There were far more Givers than that — 25,000 across the entire country. Last year, more than 2.5 million books were given out around the world. For my part, I’m proud of the twenty-five people I reached who don’t regularly read but decided to give it a try.
Here’s what BookPeople wrote on their blog afterward:
We want to extend a very special hug to Lanie, our WBN 2013 hero who volunteered to take on over 20 boxes of books and who recruited friends as givers. Here’s her experience yesterday:
“I’ve got folks handing out books at several hospitals, a jail, a dispute resolution center, a church food pantry, a hospice, several schools, city buses, Goodwill, a bar (for TENDER BAR), work, neighborhoods, street corners…just makes my heart swell!”
Without a doubt, these Givers were all heroes as agents of change. Just as I did, they located adult nonreaders from all walks of life — in a wide array of ages, genders, cultures, education, and skin colors. I could tell from feedback that other Givers had also been moved by their experiences.
One Giver, who had chosen a church assistance program as her venue, emailed me afterward: “Many of our clients are homeless, many are recently released from jail or prison, but most are living on the edge of poverty and need help with bills. The books went like hotcakes!”
Another noted, however: “It was harder to give away the books than I expected. I guess some people can’t really believe that something is absolutely free, no strings attached. [We] did manage to find people interested in reading more. It was fun!”
Several Givers handed them to servers and customers at burger restaurants. Another went to a large parking lot by a “big box” store in search of “a good cross-section of people.”
One wrote: “We had fun! I’d be happy to do it again next year.”
And so would I! As an editor and writer, words are my coin of the realm. Because they come easily to me, I feel an innate obligation to share them. I’ve volunteered for Laubach Literacy (now ProLiteracy) and Reading for the Blind (now Learning Ally), taught English as a foreign language (TOEFL) in the Western Caroline Islands, edited academic papers for nonnative speakers of English, and developed questions for a computerized grammar, spelling, and punctuation self-teaching program. I believe that reading holds a key to our survival through offering us a means to understand our differences. By “trying on” other ways of life through the tales told in books, we can visualize ourselves as others. Stories capture our imagination when we are worn down from the vicissitudes of life. Such narrative accounts of events, whether fiction or nonfiction, transport us for a moment to combat loneliness and connect us to imaginary worlds peopled by others. A friend who is a philosophy professor once commented to me, “A tale well told is always worth reading.”
The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has issued several reports on attempts to measure how much we as a society read literature, and initiated The Big Read as another approach. Currently “77 communities are encouraging literary reading” through this program. The most recent NEA report on reading from 2009, titled Reading on the Rise, noted “a tale of two Americas.” This tale called our attention to the fact that even though reading appeared to be on the rise, “The U.S. population now breaks into two almost equally sized groups – readers and non-readers.” Why would it be valuable for a civilization to read literature — for adult readers to reach out to nonreaders? “Reading is an important indicator of positive individual and social behavior patterns,” according to the report. “Previous NEA research has shown that literary readers volunteer, attend arts and sports events, do outdoor activities, and exercise at higher rates than non-readers.”
World Book Night seems to me one of the purest examples of how to change society for the better through social interaction. Not everyone in our country, let alone the world, can access stories through technology. World Book Night offers a way to bestow upon them the power to imagine other lives by reading, through the mere placement of a book in an outstretched hand. Perhaps, as Tennessee Williams suggested, we all depend on the kindness of strangers.
Yet there are no data to measure the effect of World Book Night. Showing how “narrative organizes the structure of human experience—how, in a word, ‘life’ comes to imitate ‘art’ and vice versa”—is a “daunting task,” according to psychologist Jerome Bruner in Acts of Meaning. World Book Night appears to be up to the challenge to me, however. It seems representative of solid research about the effects of social interaction, the diffusion of ideas, and attitude change. Can a fringe reader become hooked on books? World Book Night sure thinks so. And I do, too.
In a weary world replete with dark woes, stories can still light a primordial fire around which we can gather to contemplate our common humanity. Connections keep us centered on our planet, grounded in the certainty that we’re here together.
We’re all just simply trying to keep warm.
Sign up on the World Book Night website to be notified when you can apply to be a Giver in your town on April 23, 2014!