Last weekend I attended the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books as both a reader and an author. This means I bought too many books and longed for about a zillion others; made eyes at Susan Straight and Cheryl Strayed; ate free food in the green room; and moderated a panel about fiction writing. After two days of rubbing elbows with my fellow bookworms (and eating so many tiny sandwiches I began to smell like one), I was ready, come Monday, for my role as solitary book giver on World Book Night. It was going to be just me, a box of books, and Pico Boulevard. I was kind of scared.
As its website explains, “World Book Night is a celebration of reading and books which will see tens of thousands of people share books with others in their communities across America to spread the joy and love of reading on April 23.” The program began last year in the U.K. to great success, and the literary holiday will hopefully reach even more countries by 2013. To become a giver, I had to apply. I recall promising to offer books to my local mechanics and barbers, and to anyone who might be wandering diverse PicFair Village, the mid-city neighborhood I call home. I requested to pass out The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, which was just one of 30 titles to choose from.
Last Thursday, I took my 10-month-old son, Dixon Bean, to Eso Won Books in Leimert Park to pick up my copies. Before handing them over, proprietor James Fugate had me sign a form promising to do right by the World Book Night folks. I solemnly swore to pass the novel out on the 23rd, and I was not to sell or dispose of any leftover copies. Outside the store, a playwright named Reginald helped me load the books and the stroller into my car, and when I told him what I was up to, he said, “I should read more.” Why is it that everyone always talks of reading like it’s vitamin-taking?
To be honest, after the nerd-love-in that is the Festival of Books, I was prepared for Monday to be a real letdown. I kept imagining people shaking their heads at my offer, or worse, yelling, “Get out of my face, bee-otch!” (Why do so many of my imagined scenarios star this line of dialogue?). As a way to protect myself, and to disarm strangers, I decided to bring Bean along for the giving. (We changed the name to World Book Day. I think this is allowed.) First, he and I practiced giving out books in the living room. I thought it would be cute if he walked the books in his push-cart, but he’s not the most productive traveler, so after a few rehearsals, we settled on the stroller.
And off we went!
To my delight, the books went fast. As promised, I passed out copies to the mechanics at the auto body shop on the corner, but since it was before 10 a.m. (World Book Morning?), all the barber shops were still closed. I got rid of three copies at the bus stop, one of which went to a woman with a butterfly tattoo — on her face. (So weird and feminine/masculine, you guys!). I handed a few to some dog walkers, and one to my neighbor. I was amazed by how many people said “yes” immediately, without even hearing what the book was. It reminded me of my father’s favorite saying, “If it’s free, take it.” Others eyed me and the baby skeptically, as if trying to discern if we were members of a religious cult. One guy thought I was offering him a book I had written — and it was clear he did not want that. I found myself exclaiming, “This won the Pulitzer Prize a few years ago!” — and I was heartened to see that the phrase made a difference. The best thing to say about the book, though, was, “It’s about a fat nerd and there’s lots of Spanish slang.” People loved that.
The goal of World Book Night is to give books to non-readers. The rules specifically state that the books “are not for those who already read books regularly.” This is why, I assume, the selection of 30 books are real crowd-pleasers, from Bel Canto to The Hunger Games. These are beloved books that have already been passed fervently from one reader to the next; they aren’t hard to enjoy. The hope is that someone might fall in love with a book they received from a stranger — and voila, a life-long reader is born. This makes a lot of sense to me, and yet, it’s tricky for a giver. I found it awkward, even condescending, to ask, “Are you a big reader?” before I told a person what I had to offer. And I was uncomfortable with the realization that I was asking this question in the high-end coffee shop — and not to the people at the bus stop. One time, I offered the book to a guy without asking about his literary proclivities, and when he saw what it was, he got so excited. “Oh! I love his stories in The New Yorker!” I couldn’t very well refuse to give him the book after that, could I?
By the end of our giving, I was exhausted, but also uplifted. It’s hard to approach strangers, but it feels good to give something you love to the world, especially when the world is so thrilled to receive it. I keep imagining one of the people I met opening up her copy of Oscar Wao — perhaps as she sips a Cappuccino, or settles in for a long bus ride — and reading the first sentence:
They say it first came from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles.
And like that, she’s sucked into Junot Diaz’s strange, funny, naughty, beautiful world. All it takes is one book. And one reader.
Image courtesy of the author.