I felt like one of those women handing out cigarettes in yesteryear. If you’re too young to remember them, you may have seen pictures. Except I have a couple years on most of those women, o.k. all of them, and rather than a sexy outfit, I chose a heavy down jacket over which I wore a sandwich-board sign, and I use the term loosely, made with a reflective vest covered over with a couple World Book Night flyers in clear page protectors. I don’t know if it helped, but I wasn’t too cold last night, given the drizzle and chill.
Last year when I was a “giver” at World Book Night, I chose a spot across from the Central Square T station in Cambridge, Mass., and found it difficult to break down people’s resistance to taking a book. They thought I was trying to foist a Bible on them, or maybe I was part of some cult. This year I was determined that it shouldn’t be so hard to give away 20 books. To get in the mood I used the pre-WBN kick off event at the Cambridge Public Library with Vanessa Diffenbaugh (The Language of Flowers), Lisa Genova (Still Alice), and Neil Gaiman (Good Omens, with Terry Pratchett) as a pep rally. It certainly got the high school students in the row next to me wound up. They wanted to sign up then and there to be givers. So did a former educator who had read Still Alice in her book group and had never heard of WBN.
I was especially pleased to get to hear Diffenbaugh, since I had chosen her novel to give away. A debut novel by a local author seemed like an easier sell than many of the more “classic” books on last year’s list. Plus I had one other trick for getting people to take my books. Since her book is so interconnected with flowers, I decided to buy 20 carnations from Brattle Florist, the same florist shop in her acknowledgments, to handout with each book. That was before I learned from Gaiman’s talk that April 23 marks Cervantes’s death and in Spain men give women a rose, and women give them a book on that day. The first Book Day, as it is known, was held on Cervantes’s birthday (October 7) in 1926, then moved to April in 1930.
This year I also went out earlier. By 5:15p.m. I was already soaked and standing in place outside the Central Square subway station with my box of books and my bouquet of long-stemmed flowers. I put down my box and started hawking. Within a few minutes a woman coming home from work was standing in front of me asking if they were really free. “Yes,” I said. “But I can’t carry the book it’ll get wet,” she replied. I pulled out a plastic bag from CVS, wrapped her book, dropped it in her tote bag and added the flower. “I’ve had a horrible day,” she said. “This is the best thing that’s happened to me all day. Thank you.”
A drinker took my second book. I told him he was welcome to it, but he couldn’t sell it. He had to either read it or give it away. He promised. He also took the “Jews for Jesus” badge that someone had dropped next to my flowers on the ground and offered to come back and find me when I got off.
I convinced a father and his young daughter on their way home from school that they should bring mom a book and a flower. One woman asked me about the book then said that she had ordered it on Amazon last night. When did that get to be an excuse?! Forty-five minutes later two women huddling under an umbrella offered to take my last book and a flower.
It was nice going home with an empty box under my arm and four unwanted flowers. I kind of like that people just wanted a book, once they were certain that they were really free. It gave me hope that people might take a chance on reading a novel they had never heard of, which was recommended to them by a woman with a homemade sandwich board. Now, if only there were a way to get the word out that World Book Night exists. Maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s just nice surprise on a spring evening, blocks from where two people plotted the Boston Marathon bombings and killed a young police officer, that someone can give you a present of a book and a flower, seemingly for no reason.