Copies of Friday Night Lights for World Book Night 2012
Copies of Friday Night Lights for World Book Night 2012

Yesterday I participated in the first-annual World Book Night here in the United States. There’s more information at the website, but to summarize: the idea is to get books into the hands of non-readers or infrequent readers by “hand-selling” 20 free copies of a book of your choice. I applied and was selected as a book giver for my second-choice book, H. G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, and elected to pick the books up at my local independent (also: amazing) bookstore, Atomic Books. Myself and two other givers were featured on their Tumblr account, discussing our books and our giveaway strategies:

My first hesitation in participation was the practicality of identifying low- or non-readers. Asking somebody straight out seemed accusatory and confrontational, but I wasn’t interested in making awkward assumptions about who was or wasn’t a reader based on outward appearances. Luckily, my book provided me with a perceived “in” – all I had to do was ask passers-by if they were Ravens fans, and if so, were they interested in a free book on football to celebrate World Book Night? I was sure I’d find 20 such persons in short order, and decided to stand on a busy street corner in downtown Hampden, near a bus stop, ATMs, popular restaurants and shops, and a convenience store.

My results were … mixed. First, carrying 20 copes of a book is a heavy proposition (thanks to T for doing most of the heavy lifting). Secondly, a few factors (to be discussed later) made the time/spot of my choosing less than ideal. Finally, I think people were suspicious of “free” handouts on the streets for unclear reasons.

To be clear, the people who were interested in the books were sincerely excited, grateful, and enthusiastic almost to the point of dumbfoundedness. I got many a wide-eyed stare from people who couldn’t seem to believe their luck. I did have a few people who declined my offer because they already owned or had read the book, or were with friends/significant others and didn’t seem to want to be greedy by snagging multiple copies. But for every “yes”, I probably got 3 “nos”, and in the end, I wasn’t able to donate all my books on the designated evening. Some pedestrians obviously thought there was a catch or a gimmick, and seemed worried that the book had invisible strings attached. Many people were harried, carrying children or groceries or bank deposits, and didn’t want to stop for a strange woman in the street with a sack o’ books. A few people were in a digital world (on phones, earbuds in, etc.) and I was reluctant to be rude.

A few things might have conspired to make my World Book Night an incomplete success. The weather in Baltimore was iffy (unseasonably cold and sporadically rainy) and traffic was unusually bad due to construction on a main highway. I also realized, after the fact, that many of the restaurants and shops in Hampden are closed for business on Mondays. Considering all these factors, the foot traffic was lighter than other nights, and most people who were out and about were not inclined to linger. There’s also the fact that this event is new to the United States, and perhaps not widely understood, so there wasn’t a sense of inclusion to persuade people to take books. A few friends I spoke with about their experiences similarly had a difficult time unloading all 20 of their books, and most of them were left with a handful of unclaimed copies.

All things considered, would I do it again? Absolutely! Most of the book recipients were very sincere and enthusiastic, and even those who declined were polite and straightforward about it. It was a good experience, and reminded me a little bit of my Girl Scout cookie booth sales. Next year, I might try a few things differently – maybe give out books downtown, where there’s more activity, or with other people, to limit the “weird lady on a street corner” element. A sign, a bookmark, or another type of identification beyond a thumb-sized button might help with this, too. I’m glad I participated, and am looking forward to World Book Night 2013!

If you’re curious, the books my friends and I weren’t able to donate are going to a local prison via a professional connection, so they won’t be wasted by any measure. I’m glad they’ll be getting some love somewhere!