At World Book Night, D.C. literacy advocates greeted with delight and skepticism

The odds of being handed a free book out of the blue were much higher Monday night than any other night of the year, thanks to the legions of volunteers and booksellers celebrating World Book Night. The event, which began last year in England and added the United States and Ireland this year, aims to spread the love of books by giving away 500,000 free paperbacks to those who might not otherwise have access or resources, or to those who just look like they could use a good read.

Volunteers in the Washington area and across the country — some 25,000 in all — scattered about pressing one of 30 mostly contemporary titles into unsuspecting hands. Among the books being given away were “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie, Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” and rocker Patti Smith’s memoir, “Just Kids.”

Outside the Cleveland Park Metro station Monday night, two types of people — eager and suspicious — streamed past a couple booksellers turned book-givers.

“Would you like a free book to promote literacy?” Sarah Baline and Susan Coll, both of whom work at Politics and Prose, would ask. Some passersby snapped up the women’s copies of “The Things They Carried,” the collection of Vietnam War short stories by Tim O’Brien, and Smith’s memoir. Others shunned eye contact, figuring the women must be selling or shilling.

“What’s it about?” asked a man in a dark jacket. “Who is Patti Smith? You really think I’ll like it? You know what — I don’t want to waste a book.”


Joan Dawkins, left, and writer Kay Jamison peruse books at Politics and Prose in D.C. Sarah Baline and Susan Coll, as well as several of their co-workers at Politics and Prose, were on hand to promote literacy across the Washington, D.C. region as part of World Book Night. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

But then along came Doug Weinfield, 57, a lawyer wearing a raincoat. He pulled out his earbuds and gratefully accepted a copy of “The Things They Carried.”

“I love that they’re giving away books,” he said.

And Melissa Oppenheimer, 46, who works for an international education nonprofit, said she and her book-loving daughter would volunteer to hand out books at next year’s World Book Night. “In this day and age, when everybody is plugged into something electronic, there is something beautiful about holding in your hands a hard copy and thumbing the pages,” Oppenheimer said.

In 30 minutes, Baline and Coll gave away all 60 volumes they brought with them.

Handing out free books is a way to be social, safe and do a good deed, says Carl Lennertz, the New York-based executive director (and only employee) of World Book Night U.S. “Book lovers, of which there are a lot, always talk to each other about the books they love,” he said, “and this is a chance to tell a total stranger.”

The program is geared mostly toward adults and young adults. Sponsors, including Barnes and Noble, UPS and the American Booksellers Association, donated the books, and volunteers had to specify titles they wanted and where they planned to hand them out. According to Lennertz, everyone from police officers in Wichita to a cab driver in Duluth, Minn., were planning to give away books at locations such as food pantries, women’s shelters and nursing homes.

In the District, more than 100 people signed up to pick up titles at Politics and Prose, where there was a book lover’s joy about the giveaway.

At the Silver Spring Metro station, Politics and Prose floor manager Susan Skirboll had a pretty straightforward strategy for her giveaway approach: “I’ll try to look respectable and not like a total freak.”

Skirboll calls the story she selected — “Kindred,” by the late science-fiction writer Octavia Butler — a book “everyone should read.” Though it contains a little bit of science fiction and fantasy, “it’s done in a way that’s kind of believable,” Skirboll said. “It talks about the slavery experience in a way I had never read before.”

Skirboll was joined by her friend, Korey Rothman, a professor of musical theater at the University of Maryland, who was giving away “Bel Canto,” by Ann Patchett. The women were prepared to talk about the books with riders. They also were prepared, Skirboll said, “for people to think there’s a catch to it, for people not taking them because they don’t read, or for just plain old ignoring because we are city people and we ignore weirdos.”

Gussie Lewis, who plans Politics and Prose’s children’s events, was giving away copies of “Because of Winn Dixie,” a tale of a young girl and her dog, to visitors at the Washington Animal Rescue League. She hoped the book would reach young people “who may not have been raised with a pet and may have seen dogs fighting. [The book tries] to teach how animals have feelings, too.”

David Montgomery joined The Washington Post in 1993. He currently writes general features and profiles for the Sunday Magazine, Sunday Style and Sunday Arts, with a focus on the Latino community and Latino arts.
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