It’s Not So Easy Giving Away Books: World Book Night US

Judith Rosen -- April 24th, 2012

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.

19 thoughts on “It’s Not So Easy Giving Away Books: World Book Night US

  1. Trina

    I chose a local seafood place next to a bus stop. Handing out Kindred took only 15 minutes, especially after one woman remembered octavia butler’s interview on Oprah when the obok was originally published. That encourasged a number of people–including a couple of teens, some older men and women and even the bus driver–to ask for a copy. It was an amazing high to give a great book to people to encourage them to read. I can’t wait till next year. Thank you WBN.

  2. Teena

    I gave out Sherman Alexi’s Diary of a Part time Indian. I had intended to find YA’s at the skatepark in our small mostly native American town but mostly met up with “crazy woman approaching with books? What?” My best receivers were in the coffee shop, at the drive through espresso place, the little gift shop where two native women work together and the bus stop.
    My favorite quotation: from a customer who had just walked into the tiny bakery where I was giving the last book to the baker who didn’t read much- “Hey, J if you could just let me read that book first since it’s one I really wanted to read, I will bring it back in a few days AND buy a bunch of stuff from you, and I’ll be sure you read it so we can talk about it!” It was fun, rewarding and people in my town did not question “free” they welcomed it!

  3. Kym Lucas

    I had a similar experience as a “giver.” My book was “Because of Winn Dixie.” Great children’s book, but since I’d put down two adult books and only one children’s book as my choices, I had planned to give them out at my local Starbucks. Still, kids go to Starbucks with their parents, don’t they? I figured I’d still give it a shot at that location. To my shock, I discovered another giver had already set up shop there (this was after I had stopped in two times to make sure I had permission to hand out books there). Since she had a Stephen King book, which seemed more appropriate to the location and business was slow, I took my books and went in search of kids.

    Found a few in grocery stores and a few more at the after school care program at the Rec Center, but the best place was a local chain restaurant. Turns out they have $4.99 pizza and $.40 wings on Mondays. I guess I was the only one in town who didn’t know that! Anyway, I was able to finish giving away my books there.

    The best transaction was with one of the restaurant’s cook. After seeing his wife and daughter kiss him goodbye when they dropped him off, I offered him the book to read to his daughter. He was actually quite excited, mentioned that he remembered reading Winn Dixie in school. I got the feeling that books weren’t a huge part of his life.

    Next time, I’ll just go to the restaurant!

    Still, all in all, an interesting experience and one I’d repeat.

  4. Karen from MA

    To Judy Rosen:
    I also chose The Things They Carried. And I too had difficulty giving them away. My reason for choosing the book was that last March my hometown library and place of employment did a month series on Vietnam which included the war. Once I was chosen as a WBN giver I made arrangements with our Veterans’ Services to show up the morning of the 23rd with coffee, doughnuts and free books
    Before visiting the Veterans’ I had morning yoga. I decided to give out 5 books in class. At first it wasn’t that difficult, 3 people jumped at the chance, but the other 2 books received responses from” I have no time” to” I’m not interested in that subject.” Luckily I was in a yoga class for that last response threw me into a quiet turmoil. Reminding myself where I was I gave a mild dissertation about the men who served our country, many of whom walk among us. Finally, 2 more books given away.
    At the Veterans’ Service people did think the books were a fundraiser, and couldn’t believe they were free. I increased their awareness of UNESCO. I’m hoping that as the awareness of WBN increases that next year it will be easier to give books out
    This was a wonderful experience. I love the challenging ones

  5. Alice Caffrey

    I had not heard of World Book Night either. Where did people get the books?
    Our library has not been able to purchase books for our collection for over a year. Our community could definitely benefit from World Book Night!

    1. Ms. Hadley Littell

      Where is your library? I want to forward books from Langhorne, PA (near Philly). I can pack eight boxes in my car… I’ve done this before with boxes of books when I went to a conference in W.V.
      Note: I’m a librarian-in-training.

  6. Susan Brown

    We had no trouble giving away our books! I chose Ender’s Game and enlisted two of my colleagues to come along. We are in a quintessential college town (Lawrence, KS) and chose an appropriate strategy – we hit the main drag between 9 and midnight and passed out 40 copies to bartenders, bar patrons, and people hanging out around town. Upon receiving a free book from a librarian, people’s smiles were bigger than their beer tabs! We documented our experience on FB – It was a great night to be a librarian!

  7. Wendy Werris

    What a delicious story, Judith! It made me laugh and think . . . I didn’t volunteer for WBN because I didn’t think I could bear up under scrutiny, but you did a fantastic job despite the opposition. Thanks for spreading the word.

  8. nicholas

    The religion thing – quite a few people thought that when I was handing out “The Poisonwood Bible” last night. That was something I had not planned on being a hurdle. The combination of passing out books – when most people’s experience in this regard is to be handed a Bible – and the term “Bible” in the title, led to many people who would walk by and ignore me completely as I offered. Too bad.

  9. Claire Kirch

    It took me about an hour (subtracting travel time) to give away 20 copies of A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick, but that’s because I was talking it up to people and got into a few long conversations about books and WBN. I selected this novel because it’s a suspenseful gothic tale set in 1907 northern Wisconsin, and one of the themes of the novel is how the harsh, bitter, long winters affect people’s psyches. Believe me, we in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin can relate to this theme.

    Anyway, people like to drink beer in this part of the world, so I thought I’d bring books to people where they are drinking in both Superior, Wisconsin and Duluth, Minnesota (two port cities separated by a bridge). I approached people in four different places: a cafe, two bars, and a brewpub. In every group I approached, at least one person took a book from me — usually a woman. I’d say 15 of the 20 books went to women. And, of everybody I approached, maybe two had heard of WBN. I talked to a young woman at the Anchor Bar reading The Book Thief that she’d just received from someone on campus. One woman, also at the Anchor, gave me her email, asked for my cell phone number to call and let me know how she liked the book, and then asked her husband take a photo of us with my camera. I have a new BFF.

    Even though I ended up giving two books to people I already knew (all of them at the Zeitgeist) who insisted, I was happy afterwards, because I think I turned some people onto books to read when not drinking beer with their friends. It was fun wishing people a “happy world book night!”

    Thinking of the differences between my experience and Judith’s: Superior does not have a bookstore, while Duluth has two left, after Northern Lights closed last year. Books aren’t as readily available here as they are in Boston, so people might be more receptive to receiving free books. Plus, these are two small communities, where, even if you’ve never met someone, that Midwest Nice always kicks in, and you always hear people out — especially when you are a captive audience, sitting with your beer, listening to someone who’s really enthusiastic when it comes to books, talking up a gothic novel of suspense that the Washington Post called “scorching.”

  10. Cheri

    Some of the things I heard: No thank you. I don’t read those kinds of books. Who can say who is good and who is bad? (when I tried to quickly describe the plot of Stephen King’s The Stand) I also had many avert their eyes, as the gym where I gave mine away often has vendors hawking something. A little disheartening, but I think I may have reached a few who wouldn’t have read something otherwise.

  11. Karen Horvath

    I had Stephen King’s The Stand, it was disappointing that people are conditioned to think of something free, as something with a string, or not valuable because it is free. I gave books out for Halloween one year, and only one girl was happy about it. I also had candy.

  12. JM

    I was giving out Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, (one of my all-time favs) and hadn’t even considered the difficulty of giving out a free book with the word “bible” in it, until I started getting the “she’s crazy” look from people. I did manage to hand off all of mine, but it took longer than expected, and necessitated a whole lot of fast talking about how it wasn’t a bible! Overall, it was a fun experience, but I’ll choose my title more carefully next year.

  13. Kizz

    I just wrote about having the same kinds of troubles. It was so strange to me to have people reject a free book. On the other hand, being a professional level rebuffer after living in the city for 25 years, I get where they’re coming from. Glad you found 20 homes for your books!

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