There is no finer feeling than that electric moment when a book passes from my hand into someone else's, usually accompanied by the words "You must read this."
Today, I had that electric thrill 20 times over as I distributed copies of Peace Like a River by Leif Enger to early-morning customers at the Starbucks in Butte, Montana as part of the first World Book Night USA.
This is the second annual World Book Night, but the first for the United States (Britain beat us to the punch with this simple, brilliant idea last year). The goal is to give away 1 million books to 1 million readers in the space of 24 hours in the U.S., the U.K., Ireland and Germany. World Book Night founder Jamie Byng explains the concept in this interview with TIME.
I had a list of 25 titles to choose from--and I thought about handing out copies of some of the most important books in my reading life like The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, or The Stand by Stephen King--but I picked Peace Like a River because not only is it a great novel, it's also an accessible one. Narrated by an asthmatic 11-year-old boy, it tells the story of a family who goes off in search of the oldest son who is a fugitive from the law. As the family travels across the northern United States in an Airstream trailer and draws closer to the boy's outlaw brother, events turn increasingly miraculous, fueled by the father's belief that he's got a direct connection to God. In an earlier review I wrote for January Magazine, I compared it to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird:
In both novels, parents are a deep and abiding mystery and childhood, which once seemed to stretch forever, is marked by self-awareness and a sense of closure. Few writers are able to discuss adolescence in such clear-eyed, yet rosy-with-nostalgia terms that will cause grown-up adults to nod so vigorously with recognition that their heads threaten to fall off their necks. Lee and now Enger have proved themselves worthy of the task. "I remember it as October days are always remembered," writes Enger, "cloudless, maple-flavored, the air gold and so clean it quivers."
You can practically taste sentences like that on your tongue. Enger writes in a simple, direct style which (I hoped) would appeal to Butte-icians. I wasn't wrong.
My first recipient is excited (or maybe just over-caffeinated?)
My wife and I arrived at the store just as the Butte morning-coffee rush was getting underway. I went through my 20 books in less than an hour--it would have been even faster if there had been more customers coming into Starbucks (most chose the drive-through option). As each person walked through the front door, my wife said, "Here comes somebody who looks like they could use a book" and I'd spring to my feet, Peace in hand.
I only had one person decline my offer of "a free book--no strings attached." He shook his head and hurried past like I was the guy in the ratty Army jacket standing outside Wal-Mart with the cardboard sign. That's okay, I understand his reluctance, but I do pity that poor man who will go to bed tonight severely lacking in literary riches. He doesn't know what he just passed up.
Everyone else walked out of the Starbucks excited to read their new copy of Peace Like a River. A few asked me if I'd accept a donation--I guess it's hard for many of us to truly believe anything is "free" these days. I told them the only payment I wanted was for them to enjoy the book and pass it along to a non-reader when they were done. Sappy, I know, but it was the cleverest thing I could come up with on the spur of the moment.
"Really, dude--it's free!"
Most of those new readers started leafing through the first pages of Enger's novel while they waited for their lattes to be made. Once they locked eyes on the first paragraph, I noticed it was hard for them to lift their eyes off the page. This is the true value of World Book Night: reminding the world that there is power to be found in artfully-written sentences.
Peace Like a River is about miracles and faith and the wide-eyed wonder of seeing the world in a new way. By enthusiastically putting a book in strangers' hands, I was hoping they would feel some positive vibes about reading. Some of the people coming into Starbucks this morning were self-avowed readers--and they were the ones whose eyes really turned into Vegas slot machine jackpots when they realized what I was giving them. But there were several men who, I could tell, hadn't darkened the doorway of a library or a bookstore in years. It was these apparent non-readers I most wanted to reach in the World Book Night giveaway. I've put the book in their hands, now it's up to Mr. Enger to work the rest of the magic. If they give him a chance, I'm sure they'll be won over to the idea of habitual reading.
I'm not stupid enough to think that some of those books I handed out won't end up forgotten in the back seat of a car, left unwanted in an employee break room, or tossed in a box for the next garage sale. But I am optimistic enough to believe that at least some of those 20 citizens of Butte will keep the TV dark tonight and settle in with their new book, re-discovering something they may have forgotten: that books stretch the imagination, force us to see the world in a different light, and--ultimately--make us better people. I'm not so pompous to think I changed lives today, but I do secretly hope I might have planted the seed in at least one person that books aren't such a bad thing after all. In this short-attention-span e-Age, the turn of a page is almost a revolutionary idea. Long live readers! Long live the book!