John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
You too can have a chance to spread free copies of your favorite books around American cities.
Do you enjoy reading? Do you love forcing your favorite books upon strangers even more?
Then you might be perfect for World Book Night, a globe-spanning reading initiative designed to press 1 million free books into the grubby hands of the uncultured on April 23, the observed birthday of Shakespeare. But better act quickly: The deadline to register as a book hander-outer is tonight, Feb. 6, at midnight. Excelsior, literary ninjas of the dark!
World Book Night exploded into existence last year in the U.K. and was successful enough to inspire 2012's American version. (England and Ireland will participate, too.) The brains behind the charity event – mostly folks who work in the major publishing houses – see it as a way of getting non- or light readers interested in this old-fashioned way of transmitting stories. They explain:
Ultimately, this isn't perfect but it's worth a shot. If 98% of the million books get to people who don't read much, and who become inspired by that one book and even go on to read more, it'll all be worth it, yes?
According to the plan, upon the commencement of the U.S. Book Night some 50,000 book lovers will fan out across U.S. cities to hunt for people who look like they could stand to read more. How to identify such loafers? The organizers say to avoid bookstores, libraries and anybody already perusing a book or Kindle. Instead, volunteers should look for their quarry at "hair salons, bowling alleys, bus drivers, roller [derbies], yoga classes, dojos, Laundromats” and “skating rinks.”
Once a volunteer locks onto a potential target, he or she sidles up with a juicy line meant to set the hook – e.g., “Do YOU know why the caged bird sings?” The volunteer then gives away one of many specially printed World Book Night paperbacks, like a Jevohah's Witness saving a soul, and then repeats the process 19 times that evening.
If you see a person coming toward you in April with a crazed look in their eyes and a teetering stack of novels in their arms, should you stop? That depends on how much you like the books, which were preselected by booksellers and librarians for their popularity, accessibility and literary quality. Among the 30 titles that made the cut are Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, Stephen King's The Stand and Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. Dave Eggers Zeitoun is in there as well, no doubt an annoyance for some people, as is The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.
Oh, but if you're planning on proselytizing people with the sci-fi adventures of Katniss Everdeen, tough luck. Reports the book-night gang: “Apologies but due to overwhelming popular demand, Hunger Games and [Marilynne Robinson's] The Book Thief have been completely allocated to givers who have applied already.”
Photo credit: Brendan McDermid/Reuters