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We’ve all heard that reading is good for us—and yeah, yeah, we could probably be doing more of it. But bibliophilia is easier to preach than practice. To help goad the light-to-non-readers among us, every year, on April 23, volunteers worldwide hand out boxes of books. Free books. It’s been happening for three years in the U.S. (four years in other parts of the world), and it’s called World Book Night.
Handing out free books isn’t as easy as it seems. Last night, at Politics & Prose, past volunteers (they’re called givers) swapped stories from years past. One stood outside the Cleveland Park Metro last year; another staked out Union Station. “People think you’re trying to sell them something,” says Sarah Baline, Politics & Prose’s events coordinator. “When you get through to them that no, this is just a free book, they get really excited.”
The titles aren’t shabby, either. This year’s books include bestsellers like Kitchen Confidential, Where Did You Go Bernadette?, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Wild. There’s a large-print book, a graphic novel, and one of my favorite short-story collections, Bobcat (go read it!). Publishers and authors have printed the books for free and forgone royalties for the cause.
World Book Night was launched in the U.K. in 2011, and it’s quickly taken root in D.C. Bradley Graham, Politics and Prose’s owner, was an early adopter. The store is now a distribution hub; publishers ship books to the store and givers pick them up in the days leading up to April 23. “When World Book Night was introduced in the U.S. in 2012, it seemed like a no-brainer,” Graham says. “If this is a way of reaching people we don’t normally reach, why not?”
That’s a core tenet of the program. When givers apply to hand out books, they’re asked to lay out a plan to reach people who don’t read much. Novelist Elliott Holt, a D.C. native, was living in New York when she first encountered World Book Night. “I noticed that everyone was giving out books on the F Train, which is heavily populated with writers and publishers,” she says. “It was kind of like preaching to the choir.” The next year, Holt called D.C.’s St. Elizabeths Hospital and asked if she could pass out books. Not only did the hospital staff agree, but three other employees signed up, too. Their efforts culminated in a 60-person dinner, at which each person was given a book. “The hospital has a library, but there’s something about owning a book, being able to mark it up if you want,” Holt says. Amen.
World Book Night is going big for its fourth anniversary. First of all, the organizers got Amy Poehler to be the honorary chairperson, which, I don’t know what that means, but my heart skipped a beat when I read it. They’ve also put together an e-book, which is available for download until May 6. A first-time experiment, the book includes novel excerpts from World Book Night participants who happen to be published writers (including Holt, who contributed the first chapter of her 2013 novel You Are One of Them) and a few essays on World Book Night itself. Next year, the e-book will consist solely of stories from givers about their experiences on World Book Night. “We don’t know what the experience [of giving] has been like for many of our customers,” Graham says. “I’ll be interested to look through next year’s e-book and see what people have to say.”
The crowd of givers at Politics and Prose had some big plans for tonight’s outreach. “I’ve promised my dentist and my optometrist books, so I’ll be making the rounds,” said one woman who lives “far from D.C.” Her husband plans to pass out books to the captive audience in the waiting room at the National Institutes of Health. So if you happen to be in the NIH clinical center today (or anywhere, really), and an unexpected book is thrust into your hands, don’t fret. It’s free, and you probably just look like you could use a good read.
Bottom photo by Darrow Montgomery