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A few years ago, I spent a lovely spring evening handing out one of my favorite novels to total strangers in New York City. It was April 23, and I was one of some 50,000 volunteers around the world spreading literary cheer on behalf of World Book Night (W.B.N.), an annual celebration of reading that began five years ago in the United Kingdom. Reactions from jaded New Yorkers to a no-strings-attached free book ranged from simmering distrust to utter delight—and by the end of the evening, I was confident that I’d successfully encouraged at least few adults to read more often.
Reading offers a multitude of scientifically proven health benefits, including enhanced cognitive abilities, higher self-esteem, and a decreased risk for Alzheimers. Still, 35 percent of people in the United Kingdom don’t regularly read, and only half of Americans read more than five books a year. W.B.N. is working to change that, one free book at a time. As a program of The Reading Agency, W.B.N. distributes 250,000 specially produced books throughout the United Kingdom alone, to prisons, homeless institutions, and individuals. Says Rose Goddard, W.B.N. Program Manager: “Everyone who gives books on World Book Night is a volunteer, encouraging others to read and setting them on their reading journey.”
W.B.N.’s efforts seem to be working: Of W.B.N book recipients polled in 2014, 83 percent said that they intended to read more after receiving a W.B.N. book. But beyond handing out physical copies, W.B.N. is a movement about community and the power that books have to bring people together. In addition to the volunteers—who report hugs and smiles as a result of their giving—publishers donate specially printed books, authors forgo royalties, and bookstores and libraries (nearly 2,500 in 2014) host book collection drives.
All of these freebies might seem detrimental in today’s delicate bookselling climate, but booksellers have been surprisingly supportive, many believing that the act of sharing books is a contagious phenomenon. The Los Angeles Timesreported an impressive uptick in book sales after the inaugural W.B.N. five years ago, and Goddard adds that 86 percent of the 2014 volunteers said they intended return to their local bookshops and libraries.
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Still, all that enthusiasm is expensive, and last year, W.B.N. suspended its official U.S. efforts despite (or perhaps because of) the program’s success, citing financial difficulties after 25,000 volunteers handed out more than half a million specially created books to unsuspecting Americans last April 23. This year, W.B.N. is encouraging individuals to hand out non-W.B.N. books, whether they come from their own stacks or were specially purchased for the night. Goddards says that volunteers remain enthusiastic, tracking their gifting using the hashtag #readingjourney, and that the W.B.N. social networks “have had some brilliant responses, showing just how powerful book gifting can be.”
Indeed, a number of community events have sprouted up surrounding W.B.N., including the Dartford Book Exchange, which invites residents of Dartford, England to donate or exchange used books in the weeks leading up to April 23. Kelly Goldsworthy explains that she and her co-organizer, Stephen Oliver, were both selected as W.B.N. volunteers: “We intend to give [W.B.N. books], as well as any books we have left at the end [of the book swap] to organizations like refuges, day centers, and care homes—in line with the W.B.N. principles of encouraging reading amongst those who are not yet book lovers.”
Back in America, former W.B.N. volunteers have been keeping the spirit alive across the country. Book blog Book Riot has teamed up with nonprofit The Harry Potter Alliance for the B.Y.O.B. Book Drive (“Bring your own outrageous, outstanding, overflowing books”) in support of HPA’s Accio Books campaign. Jenn Northington, Book Riot’s Director of Events and Programming, says that there was “something magical” about the W.B.N. experience: “It led to some really fascinating conversations with strangers.”
The B.Y.O.B. Book Drive, she explains, came out of conversations she had about the end of the official U.S. event. Book Riot’s drive is about “collecting as many books as we can to donate to the literacy charities we’re working with.” Book lovers are invited send in their used books, or to attend April 23 meet-ups scheduled in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia. “I am so excited to meet the different people who come out,” says Northington.
And no doubt, many will—because if World Book Night shows us anything, it’s that books are a profound connector of people. When I gave away my final W.B.N. book on the subway a couple years ago—The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver—the recipient was a woman whose gruff city armor made me nervous to approach her. At first, she grimaced as though I were about to hand her a dirty diaper. But once she held the book and flipped through, she started to relax, and we spent the rest of our subway ride engaged in a rich conversation about the book’s themes—imperialism and women’s rights. We were so involved in our discussion that we continued talking for nearly 20 minutes out on the street before finally parting ways.
I never saw that woman again, but I’ve often pictured her enjoying my favorite book as much as I did. And I like to think that she’s shared and discussed it with many others, because that’s what the spirit of W.B.N. is all about.
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Suzanne Russo has written for CNN Travel, National Geographic, EuroCheapo, and Marie Claire, among others. She is the managing editor of offMetro San Francisco and the director of Lit Crawl National, a network of madcap and cerebral literary pub crawls founded by Litquake, San Francisco's literary festival.