Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sing 10 Bars Bel Canto Style

If you follow me on social media or run into me in every day life chances are you heard that yesterday, for World Book Night, I gave out 20 specially printed copies of Ann Patchett's Bel Canto. I'm not going to explain what WBN is because you're smart and I gave you a link. I am going to use my 10 things today to recap my day yesterday.

1. Before you read anything about my day, though, you must go read about Chris Cander's day. Have your hankie at the ready but don't be afraid. Just read.

2. It was hard, y'all. It's a stretch for me to talk to strangers and I had to really work outside my own box (so to speak) in order to approach people just out of the blue. It turns out I'm right to be a little cautious since apparently I am a terrible judge of who is approachable/not insane/cool.

3. The very first offer I made was rejected. I was walking to the train with my heavy bag of books, one book out at the ready, and saw the crossing guard for the local elementary school. Perfect target audience, right? She has time waiting for kids, she might be bored, she is school adjacent. She took the book, looked at it, and said, "Um, no thanks. I don't want it to get wet and there's no place to put it." She was not the last to rebuff me, either. People didn't take free books from me. It turns out I find that a little hard to handle.

4. Knowing that I really needed to get right back on the horse I stopped a young mother walking her son to school a few blocks later. She was wearing this snapping pink scarf draped over her head to keep out the mist. She smiled and asked questions. What was my name? Did I write the book? She took it and she seemed happy about it. And her kid saw her be happy about a book. That's got to be cool, right?

5. I spent a lot of time worrying about profiling people. The mission of WBN is to try and direct books toward populations where there is little or no reading. How do you tell if someone is a low reader? I could eliminate everyone reading a book on the subway I guessed. Do people with glasses read a lot? Do people listening to music or playing games not read? Will the type of hat they wear tell me? What about their clothes? Age? If they're reading a bible does it mean they read a lot or does it mean they solely read the bible?

6. Eventually, through reading the social media updates about the movement, I realized that I was making things harder on myself. I didn't have to profile I just had to get these books out in the world. If I got it wrong once in a while that was OK. You never know where a book is going to go after you release it into the wild.

7. I also worried that the WBN folks would be upset with me if I didn't pass the books into someone's hands. There was a feeling that person to person connection was required. I didn't have it in me to do specific personal connection for all 20 books so I left a few in prominent places to be found. I tweeted a couple of pics and the WBN people were fine with it, they even passed my tweets along. Thank goodness!

8. It took me a while to work out how I was being perceived, too. Since I knew what I was doing and since the idea of a free book makes me giddy I didn't think through what it's like to be approached by a stranger on the sidewalk in New York. Once in a great while someone is asking directions. More often they want you to donate to a cause, buy something, give them your change, take their religion, sign their petition, or respond to their creepy pick up line. Even the "Free Hug" people here aren't really only giving away free hugs. There was a persistence required that it took me a while to understand. People thought I was handing them a religious tract or asking them to buy the book or that it was my book I was giving away for free to get them to read my other books which might or might not be horrible or ever have been read by another living human. 

9. There are things I'd do differently next time. I forgot the button that identified me as a giver to people I was approaching. Most givers had homemade signs, too, like "Free Books!" or "Hate to Read? Talk to Me!" A lot of people made their pile of books visible in a box with the WBN sticker still on it, in a display on a stoop or street corner, and in one memorable case, in a little red wagon. Many people also worked in pairs or groups. Some of them gave out the 20 copies of one title between them and others each got their 20 titles and had a selection to talk about and let people choose. Being in one location with signs and some back up feels like a way to make the whole thing more giver-friendly to givers like me. I narrowly missed meeting up with a pair of givers in my neighborhood because their books went so quickly. They set up shop on the stoop where Patti Smith used to live (not a super high traffic street) with copies of Just Kids and their books were gone in about an hour. All I saw when I got there was their box and sign in a dumpster (pictured).

10. Let's see how many of my recipients I can remember. I cheated on one and gave it to Sara to pass along to someone she thought would love the book. The pink scarf lady. The coffee cart guy outside the hospital. A lady on her way to work across the street from the hospital. Left one for the homeless guy on Flatbush Ave who is usually reading the bible. He wasn't there but someone had left him some bananas so I balanced it on those. Left another by the metrocard testing machine at the subway. Another on the platform on the spot where the pay phone used to be (pictured). The porter here at work. My co-worker. A guy in Grand Central who was eyeing the pile of books I was sitting in front of. A girl shilling for a children's charity on the street. I told her, "You spend all day trying to get people to talk to you. I want to give you a book." It didn't make sense to anyone but me but she seemed excited to get a book. A homeless guy camped out on the dining concourse of Grand Central. A guy at a crosswalk whose eyes lit up when he heard me offer the book to a woman and get rejected. Two women waiting for the Hampton Jitney. One left in a phone booth near Grand Central (pictured). One in the elevator on the way home from work. Last one to a bored looking teenager waiting on the platform when I got off the subway. If I'm counting correctly that leaves two unaccounted for. Maybe I'll remember who they went to later.

Want to join me next year?


  1. Between reading your story and Chris's, I so wich I'd been involved!

    There are some AMAZING books on that list: The Stand, one of my all time favorite books. The Glass Castle moved me like crazy. Just Kids...what a story! Lovely Bones...sigh, Kite Runner, Winn Dixie, Owen Meany <3

    Hunger Games, tho? Q is for Quarry? I've been reading Sue Grafton since A is for Alibi, and I love remember beginning them in the 1980s LOL

    Three books I couldn't get through are on this list as well: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (I don't remember why...just that I put it down after awhile); Poisonwood Bible and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks...both of those I read while getting chemo. PB I read all the way through, but just hated it. Henrietta Lacks, I WANTED to like...but ... meh.

    A few of the others I'd never even heard of and I call myself a reader?

    Well done, my friend!

  2. Debbie in AZ1:16 AM

    Great Job! Never underestimate the power of a book to help someone in some way.. you just never know the good you've done when you give someone a book.

  3. Miflohny1:41 PM

    I'd have a hard time doing this on my own - but doing it with someone else might be doable. But I haven't read any of the books on this year's list - and I'm reading all the time - and I'm afraid it would be the same next year. I think I'd feel weird handing out a book I hadn't read.