What Is It? World Book Night (WBN) is a world-wide effort to get books into the hands of adult light- and non-readers. It is held annually on April 23 – Shakespeare’s birthday. Volunteers register to receive 20 copies of a book, then promise to distribute those books somewhere in their local community, doing their best to give books only to light- or non-readers.
Why Do It? By promoting reading for pleasure, WBN aims to improve literacy by actively engaging emerging readers in their desire to read. With improved literacy, an individual improves his/her opportunities for employability, social interaction, enfranchisement, and positive mental and physical health. Additionally, book readers are more likely to participate in pro-social activities such as volunteering and attending cultural events.
Okay, But Why Should I Do It? Well, why not? I’m a huge fan of libraries/reading/education, so this seemed like a good thing to support. And I adore new experiences, so the fact that I had never done anything like this before sealed the deal for me.
First, I applied to participate in WBN. (There is actually a rather formal process one must complete in order to engage in this activity; I had to explain why I wanted to take part in WBN, and describe where I was going to give away my books should I be selected.) Two months after I submitted my application, I learned that I was confirmed as a 2014 Book Giver. At that point I had to state my top 3 preferences of books to give away from the list of titles available. I ended up with Same Difference by Derek Kirk Kim. It’s a graphic novel – which I thought would be a nice choice for people who were light/poor readers, as they can enjoy the images as much as the words, and the volume of text would likely feel less intimidating compared to the amount of text in a dense book.
Then, I got prepared: I went to my pickup site (our city library) a week before the big night and picked up my box of books and bag of supplemental information. I made myself a sign that read, “FREE BOOKS! :)” in big, bold, red lettering, and loaded a sack with the 20 copies of the novel. (Thankfully it’s a small book!)
Finally, I took action: The day of the event I placed an identification sticker on my chest, put a big ol’ smile on my face, and started walking to my destination. I was excited to see if people in the city would be willing to accept a free book from a nice looking girl.
I first went to the city Grayhound bus station, thinking that the terminal would be full of people, some of whom would likely be light- or non-readers. However, when I walked into the space, I was surprised to find only two people in the waiting area. With my “Free Books!” sign in hand, I approached the middle aged couple, smiled broadly, and asked, “Would you like a free book?” The woman looked at me skeptically and asked, “Is it really free? I don’t gotta buy nothin’ or nothin’, do I?” I replied, “I promise it’s free,” and extended the book towards her. Hesitantly, she took it from my hands, to which I smiled even wider, said, “Have a nice day!”, and turned before she could try and refuse a solicitation offer that wasn’t coming.
Slightly disappointed that my master plan to distribute free books was foiled just two minutes after it began, I shook off the unexpected start and continued walking up the road – where I arrived at the Salvation Army.
Six young, large black men were standing in a group, and I approached them smiling and holding my sign. I greeted them with, “Hi! Would you like a free book?” They all turned to look at me, and three of the six men looked at me like I was crazy, while two of them looked at me skeptically. It was as though I was somehow trying to hustle or con them – which I found delightfully ironic, seeing as how usually they were the ones trying to get something out of me. Turning the tables was even more fun than giving away books! One of the men returned my smile with a grin of his own, and said, “Sure, I’ll take a book!” With the ice broken, four of the additional guys extended their hand to receive the book I extended towards them – while one of them said, “Naw, thanks; I’ll pass.” Fair enough. I nodded at him, and continued my way up the street.
Less than twenty steps later, a small circle of four older white people were standing around smoking. I walked up to them and made eye contact with the only woman in the group. Once again I smiled and said, “Hi! Would like a free book?” nodding to the sign in one hand and the thin paperback in the other. The woman replied with an enthusiastic, “Oh yes, thank you! I’m always lookin’ for sumthin’ to read!” I made the same offer to the three remaining men in the circle, and two of them accepted the book equally enthusiastically, while one accepted the book with a more guarded perspective. After he took the book from my hands I just smiled at him and continued walking up the road.
As I approached the doors to the Salvation Army, a stream of men began filing past me. As each one passed I moved in front of him and repeated my smiling mantra of, “Hi! Would you like a free book?” One of them asked me why I was giving away books, and I explained, “Today is Shakespeare’s birthday, and volunteers all over the country – well, all over the world, actually – are giving away books to celebrate. Would you like one?” The tough-looking black man immediately softened, and responded, “I really like Shakespeare. Sure, I’ll take a book,” and accepted the paperback from me. I offloaded five more books in this quasi walk-by approach, all to black men in their 20s.
Once the line of people passing me ceased, I made my way into the main building of the Salvation Army. A tough-looking white woman staffing the entrance desk looked at me menacingly and barked, “Can I help you?” (with a tone that implied anything but assistance). Ignoring her gruff demeanor, I politely asked, “Yes – I’d like to know if I can come inside and give away a few free books?” My request caught her completely off guard, and she genuinely didn’t know how to respond. She answered, “Um… do you have a permit for that?” I told her, “No, I don’t – but today is World Book Night, so volunteers all over the city are giving away free books – and I’d like to do that here, if it’s okay.” After a second of mental processing, the woman softened ever-so-slightly, and said, “Hey – I remember reading something about that a few weeks ago.” Just as she was about to give me the green light to enter (I think), a homeless man pushed his way through the entrance and barked at her, “Nancy, I need my chair – NOW!” Nancy barked back at the man, “I’m through watching your stuff Kevin; you have to go to medical if you want your chair! I’m not getting it for you!” Kevin and Nancy exchanged some words, and I stood to the side watching the mental volley. After two minutes a tiny pause in the action occurred, and I re-inserted myself with a quick, “So, can I just go over there and see if any of those guys want a book?” I think Nancy had forgotten about me, because her head spun around to my direction, her eyes re-focused on me, and after a second she remembered that I was even there. In a preoccupied tone, she said, “Yeah yeah, sure, go ahead…” She had bigger fish to fry at the moment – so I took advantage of the “distraction” that Kevin caused, and walked into the lobby of the Salvation Army.
I found myself in front of an elevator that I’m assuming went up to the residence portion of the shelter. I approached three residents waiting for the lift, and asked them if they would like a free book. They looked at me as if I were insane. Ignoring their demeanor, I continued and explained that today is World Book Night, so people all across the city, and the country, and even the world!, are giving away free books – and the book I’m giving away is like a comic, but for adults; and would any of you like one?
At this moment the elevator door opened, and six female residents poured out of it. They saw the group of three men (who were still looking at me like I was crazy), and immediately approached, wanting to know what was going on. I delivered my pitch once more, and one of the women replied with, “Pssshhht, I don’t want no comic book.” But at the same time, another of the women smiled and said, “Hey, that sounds cool! Yeah, I’ll take one!” I returned her smile and offered a copy of the novel. With that, two of the men in the original group finally found their voices and told me, “Hey, yeah, I’ll take it. Thanks.” I handed them each a copy of the book, and smiled at them before the group of nine residents made their way out the main door.
With one book remaining in my bag, I approached an older black man sitting in a chair near the entryway. He had been watching me since I first walked inside, so I saved the explanation and simply asked him, “Sir, would you like a book?” He looked at me for half a second, then calmly said, “No thank you. It’s nothin’ personal, mind you; I just don’t read.” Whether he meant that he doesn’t like reading or that he doesn’t know how read, I’m still not sure. But I didn’t pry; instead, I smiled and said, “That’s okay, I’m not offended. I hope you have a nice day all the same.” He nodded his head slightly at me, and I continued moving through the shelter.
A few seconds later, a young white girl stepped near me. I could tell she wanted a book, so instead of making her ask me for one, I quickly said, “Hi! Say, I’m giving away free books today; would you like one?” She smiled broadly, and answered, “Yes please. Thank you!” As I handed the last book over, her eyes grew wide as she took the text in her hands. I wondered when the last time was that someone gave her something ‘just because’.
With my bag now empty, I quietly walked out of the Salvation Army, down the street, and back to the corner where the book-giving activity began. The original group of six young black men were still gathered, and as I approached one of them smiled at me. I smiled back, and as I came within ear shot he called out, “Reading Is Fundamental!”, giving me a ‘thumbs up’ in the process. I laughed out loud, and called back, “You bet it is!”
I smiled all the way back to my car, delighted that not only was I able to share books with people who will truly appreciate them (and who genuinely need them), but that I was also able to give them a story to talk about. I’d call this a very successful literacy-promoting venture.
P.S. A fun history of RIF throughout the years. May WBN be as successful 40 years from now!