All those light switches. I spotted them as soon as I opened the trashcan next to the garage. Painters were sprucing up walls inside my house, and the trim was now white. These switches were ivory. The electricians had just thrown them away when they installed the new ones.
“Surely someone else can use them,” I thought.
So in I crawled to rescue eighteen switches—plus eleven outlets, twenty-five coverplates, and one doorbell. I added shutters taken off kitchen windows and loaded the box in my car. Then I drove over to Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore.
The Austin, Texas, location was the first of its kind when it opened twenty-two years ago, creating a place that accepts donations of new and gently used building materials to sell to the community at affordable prices. The earnings support Habitat’s homeownership programs. Their website notes “the best part of the ReStore is the thrill of discovery—one never knows what one might find!”
As I handed over my gently used switches, a light came on in my head as I realized the connection to reading: That thrill of discovery is exactly what happens whenever I open a new book. And here I was, a veteran Giver preparing for her third World Book Night, looking for a location to hand out Peter Heller’s novel, The Dog Stars.
This poignant story follows survivors of a flu pandemic on a postapocalyptic earth as they rummage for resources to survive. And the protagonist, a former writer named Hig, used to build houses. Yes, ReStore seemed like the perfect venue for this tale.
When the Giver books arrived at my pickup location, BookPeople, I went in for my box, filled with twenty copies of The Dog Stars. A week later, when World Book Night finally arrived on April 23, 2014, I took my Giver box over to ReStore to see if I could locate new or light readers to interest them in trying a book I’d enjoyed myself.
First I obtained approval from the floor supervisor, who also directed me to get an okay from the woman who handled the cash in a hut by the door. She seemed intrigued by the World Book Night idea, yet answered “No” when I asked if she read much. I showed her a copy of The Dog Stars and told her a bit about the saga. Then I held the paperback out to her.
“Would you like to read it? See if you like it?”
With a big grin, she quickly extended her hand back to meet mine, and became my first recipient.
I had some great conversations about books with folks who were sorting through the bins of nuts and bolts. If people said they already loved to read, I praised them and confided, “I do, too!” Then I handed them bookmarks with the World Book Night logo and URL, encouraging them to apply as Givers in 2015.
A woman and her son mulling over faucet selections looked up mystified when I asked them if they liked to read, but accepted a book each (albeit quizzically). Two young women perusing the lighting choices giggled, looked at one another, and then stuck out their hands simultaneously to take books. A husband-and-wife team breezed by like two arrows swiftly winging their way to the window section on an unwavering quest. They stopped short to hear me out though.
“Oh, I read,” she grinned, “but he doesn’t.” She tilted her thumb toward her spouse, who sputtered, realizing he’d been outed. He accepted a book, muttering, “Oh, okay, I’ll read it.”
A woman walked up out of curiosity, trailed reluctantly by a teenage daughter in Gothic attire. I explained World Book Night, and the mother said she loved books. I asked her bored daughter if she liked to read.
After I described the plot of Heller’s story, the girl looked helplessly at her mother, rolling her eyes.
“Will I like it?” she groaned.
“You won’t know until you read it,” the mother replied neutrally.
“It’s dystopian,” I added, thinking that might appeal to her.
The daughter thrust out a hand in exasperation for a copy. I wondered if she’d ever gone fishing, like Hig did in The Dog Stars when he felt troubled.
My book supply was shrinking, and so was the number of shoppers. I peeked into the plumbing section and spotted a tall lanky man in blue overalls, with a denim cap pulled way down on his forehead.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said as I approached him, “do you like to read?”
“Now why would you ask me a question like that?” he countered, slightly irritated. He pulled his cap as low as it would go over his eyes and ducked his head, starting to turn away.
Remaining steadfast in my mission, I quietly began to tell this plumber about World Book Night. He seemed uncomfortable, but paused. I smiled and started spinning the book’s plot—how just a handful of people in the world endured after a massive influenza mutation nine years earlier, how they had to numb their emotions just to keep going, how Hig flew his small plane to salvage dwindling supplies (like we see here at ReStore, I gestured), how a crusty old man named Bangley became Hig’s only companion until, one day, they think they hear a radio transmission indicating other survivors might be out there. Then I added that I’d really enjoyed The Dog Stars. I’d laughed, I’d cried, I’d kept turning the pages to find out what was going to happen next.
As I spoke softly, the man’s body language began to relax. Yet he still gave the impression of being hesitant, shifting his weight from foot to foot in a shuffling dance. Finally he settled down, appearing to have reached a weighty decision. He peeked at me from under his cap brim, head lowered.
“I’m going to make you a promise,” he said with deep conviction, pointing his finger at me for emphasis, “because of something you just said. I promise you I’m going to read this book because you said you enjoyed it. My wife’s the reader. I’m not. But we have two young girls. We keep telling them to read because we want the very best for them. They keep saying, ‘But YOU don’t read.’ So now I’m going to go home and read so they can see me doing it and know I think it’s important.”
Bowing slightly, I presented the book to him on two outstretched hands, as one might offer a gift of great worth. He took the novel and cradled the book against his chest, looking down at it for a long moment. I misted up.
“I’m really glad you’re going to read,” I whispered.
That’s why I love World Book Night so much. I can sense the collective energy of my fellow Givers (25,000 of them) as we pass out half a million new books to reluctant readers each year.
That’s 500,000 light switches going on in minds all across the USA—not even counting all the other countries around the globe. What a grand way to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday!