In principle what could be simpler than handing out a free book, no strings attached. Just read, enjoy, and pass to a friend. In reality, not so much. It took me 50 minutes to hand out 20 copies of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried to commuters in Central Square Cambridge, Mass., as they wended their way home from work. Maybe I should have taken the morning’s pouring rain as an omen, or the person who told me on my morning walk, “You’ll have trouble giving out 20 books. I’ll take what you can’t hand out and give them to my charity.”
I started to worry as I reread the opening of the book on the bus to Central Square. I had forgotten that in the first few pages there’s sex, drugs, and death. O’Brien doesn’t hold anything back from the get go. What if people are offended before they even get started on one of the best books about the Vietnam War, about writing, about life?
I should have made a sign. But I didn’t realize that until I put down my books and realized that people just thought I was loitering. So I held up three books and used them as a sign and called out, “Free books. World Book Night.” Not a single person had heard of World Book Night, including those who stopped to talk with me. Then, as a young woman explained to me, they look like religious books. That’s why everyone’s averting their eyes, she said.
Two well-dressed 20-somethings in business attire ran up to me, as much as you can run in high heels, excited because they thought I was doing an advance promotion for a reading by O’Brien. When they found out I was giving out the book, they walked away. They’d already read it, they said. So had a few other people; it’s a good book, they said. The FedEx driver didn’t like it. She probably had to read it for school and write an essay about the things she carried. Anyway, UPS co-sponsored World Book Night, no worries.
My first taker was a security guard from CVS, who said he would read it that evening. Number two was a gray-haired lady who thought World Book Night, after I explained it to her, sounded great, kind of like the walk to raise money for a chorale society that she had just heard about. I never did get that connection, but she was very happy to have a brand new book. So was another woman, but I almost had to ask her to give it back once I found out she’s a reader. She reads a book a week, and had read almost every book being given out across the country last night. Although she prefers physical books, it’s hard to move them when she changes apartments. Her husband likes her to buy books on the Kindle.
Make eye contact, I reminded myself. Someone wants a copy of this book. One man tapped his breast pocket; I have a Kindle. Two people in scrubs walked by smoking intently as if that would protect them from me and my free books. A short woman in a brown wig stopped in front of me. Rose. I hadn’t seen her since my father-in-law died just over a year ago. She had been his caretaker. We talked briefly. I forgot I was still holding the books. She asked if she could have one. Yes.
Some people walking in pairs took only one book. One man from Russia wasn’t interested in Vietnam. Do you have something on World War II? One woman was flustered that she couldn’t make a donation. The last book went to a youngish man. Will it tell me more about World Book Night if I read this? Yes, I said. It will tell you how to get more information. But it’s simple really. It’s about getting people reading. I hope he likes it and passes it on to a friend. That’s really what World Book Night is about. And it doesn’t hurt if it encompasses sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, and a generation, too, all in one short book.