Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Last night was World Book Night (also Shakespeare’s birthday and the feast of St. George the Dragon-Slayer) and all over the world – or at least the USA & the UK – people like me are giving away books to other people. I learned about – and was recruited for – WBN, from my friend Meg, who works for American Booksellers Association, one of the WBN sponsors and huge advocates for independent booksellers and books. This is the first year for WBN in the US, and we hope it takes off like the bubonic plague in the middle ages.
The idea is that the “givers” (an appealing label, I think; Samaritans might be even better) choose a book from the list assembled by booksellers and librarians, and then on the appointed evening give away 20 free copies of that book to non- or light-readers. The list of books was a good one so it was no problem to come up with a book I could be proud to distribute. In my case, it was Patti Smith’s memoir of her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids. Then there was the question of where to give away the free books. Many of my frequent hangouts – the Hastings library, my backyard, the chicken coop - were not suitable. So I chose the Yonkers train station, at rush hour, when the commuters are returning from their labors and might be in need of just this book.
At the appointed hour, I put all the books in a canvas satchel, and attached my WBN Giver button to my lapel, so as not to be mistaken for a cultish recruiter, and most wisely – I persuaded CSB to join me.
We positioned ourselves at the front door of the train station. Northbound Metro-North rains pulled in every few minutes and disgorged their passengers. Meanwhile sirens wailed down the block and several police cars and 3 ambulances pulled up and parked any which way next to the little green space beside the station. Policemen gathered on the sidewalk and talked among themselves. More policemen arrived. CSB stood just outside the station and announced, “It’s World Book Night. Free Books,” to each new wave of commuters. After thrusting copies of books at several people who actually turned me down, that is, they actually said, no, they did not want a free book, I tried to refine my technique. It had never occurred to me that someone might not want a free book, a good book recommended by yours truly. I had a lot to learn. CSB encouraged me target people who looked like potential readers. But what does a potential reader look like? Glasses and pointy heads? You can imagine the difficulty.
The next person to whom I offered a free book asked what was going on with all the police. I said we had no idea. He kept walking. Another man stepped out of the station and saw the swarming policemen, then looked up at CSB and asked if there had been shooting. There had not. Then a middle-aged woman emerged and I approached her and said it was World Book Night and all over the country people were giving away free books. She kept walking, and I followed along. I asked her if she would like a free copy of Patti Smith’s wonderful memoir. She walked a little faster. Back at the canvas bag, CSB suggested it was not a good idea to chase people down the block talking about the lyrical qualities of a book even if you only want to give them a free copy of Just Kids.
How would you like to be chased down the street by a nut waving a book? he gently asked.
I get your point, I said. And tried to restrain myself in the future.
Actually I did get a little better. I stood still and extolled World Book Night and announced that we had free books – absolutely free – to give away. A taxi driver who’d been waiting for a fare came over and asked for a book! I was so excited that I asked if we could take his picture. We did. He said he was going to start the book that night.
Another man said, Oh I know Patti Smith.
I said, Wow, that’s great.
Then he said, I don’t mean personally. I just know of her. If I knew her personally I might not be as screwed up as I am now.
I don’t know exactly what he meant by that, and it seemed improper to get too nosy there at the train station, but he was very happy with his copy of Just Kids.
Then we noticed that just as quickly and randomly as they had arrived, the police cars and ambulances were driving away. Four policemen emerged from the little park with a man in handcuffs. He wore a plaid shirt and didn’t seem too upset about the handcuffs. They were all standing in front of the statue of Ella Fitzgerald, which may or may not have any connection to the arrest.
Soon enough all the copies of Just Kids were given away and although trains kept blowing their whistles and coming into the station, we went home. I feel confident that next year I will have honed my book-giving skills and I promise not to chase anyone down the sidewalk.

1 comment:

pond said...

I love the image of you following that woman at the train station, not understanding why anyone would NOT want a free book. Good idea bringing CSB