Article and Photos by: Judy Blackstock
On April 23, I joined thousands of people in the United States, England, Germany, and Ireland to give away 500,000 books. The occasion was World Book Night (WBN).
This exceptional idea—to get books into the hands of non-readers or light readers–emerged from a committee formed at London’s 2010 Industry Book Conference.
During a round table session, a discussion evolved on how to get more adults to read. Getting a book into their hands was the simple answer. Accomplishing the deed was more complicated. A large number of book companies, businesses, and organizations worked together to create World Book Night: Penguin, Barnes & Noble, American Library Association, MacMillan to name a few.
Authors of the books chosen agreed to give up royalties on specially printed copies of their books, thus making it affordable to print the books. United Parcel Service became a sponsor.
In 2011 the first event was celebrated in the UK and Ireland. The following year the United States and Germany joined. April 23 was chosen for WBN because that date is designated as International Day of the Book by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Operations. Also on this date, Shakespeare was born and also died.
The Reading Agency, an independent UK charity, has taken on World Book Night, with the goal of reaching the 35% of adults who do not read for pleasure.
Books are chosen by “an independent panel of booksellers and librarians, using lists curated by experts in the bookselling and library world.” Former WBN givers can make recommendations also.
The books considered are both current and established classics, including a few award winning children’s books. The books cover all genres of writing from science fiction to humor while paying attention to gender, ethnicity and geography. A few books are available in large print or in Spanish.
Volunteers are the key to delivering the 500,000 books to people who are not looking for a good book to read. On the World Book Night website, people interested in becoming book givers complete a simple online form that includes the list of selected book titles (you choose 3) and a brief quesstionnaire about why you want to be a volunteer book giver.
The time to apply is from late October until January 5. If you are chosen you will be notified which book you will deliver and when and where to pick up your 20 paperback books.
In Knoxville, Barnes & Noble Booksellers receives the boxes of books and keeps them to be picked up by the book givers. I talked to an employee who said in 2013 there were 150 book givers, and this year there were only 30. There is no definite reason for the drop, but lack of publicity may be a factor. (I have not yet found someone who knew about World Book Night before I told them.)
My first book to give away was The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls in 2012. This book is a memoir of Walls’ nomadic, dysfunctional family. When I read it I was in awe of her perseverance after such a disruptive childhood. I chose it to give away, thinking that women, homeless or in temporary shelters, might find hope for their own lives. I distributed the books at the Volunteer Ministry Center of Knoxville. When I first approached VMC, I learned Jeannette Walls would be the keynote speakers at their annual fundraiser. The books were given to women who would also be able to connect to the author in person.
To find non-readers or light readers the WBN volunteers usually venture outside their neighborhoods and offices to places like jails and bus stations. The subject matter of your book can pertain to where or to whom it is given.
In 2013 I thought my choice of Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris might be one that young gays would enjoy. It’s highly entertaining and it shows how each life has merit and a unique position in the world. Although there were several organizations or support groups for gays in Knoxville, I didn’t know anyone involved, and was unable to make a pitch for presenting the free books.
Running short on time, I obtained permission and distributed the books outside my neighborhood Kroger. I received distrustful looks from passersby. People were puzzled when I mentioned the author. A large number of folks in my zip code area did not welcome a book written by a gay man, even though he is funny. But, I did give them all out.
This year, my give-away book was Funerals Are Fatal by Agatha Christie. I’ve been a faithful fan of Dame Christie since I was introduced to her books in the 1960s, I happily distributed the books at the National Healthcare Corporation (NHC) nursing facility on Emerlad Avenue. With the help of Diana Melendy, Activities Director, we gave away the books to residents and staff.
I told recipients that my mother had resided there and what an avid reader she was. They had their own stories to tell and were amazed that so many books were being given away. Irene Nance is 101 years old and is still an avid reader. We thought she deserved a book for serving as such a good example! A visitor we approached with a book said she was a past librarian, and after talking to Diana she volunteered to bring in a bag of large print books.
It is hard to give away a book you love when you aren’t sure how it will be received. Talking to people who did or did not want books reminded me that my role as a volunteer involves giving books. Whether the receivers read and take pleasure, or find they don’t enjoy the experience, my part of World Book Night is accomplished when the book is held in their hands. I can only hope it is the beginning of a wonderful relationship.
Sign up for World Book Night’s newsletter to learn when to apply for World Book Night 2015.
© Judy Blackstock, 2014.