So we're doing World Book Night again.
World Book Night is a funny thing. It's sort of paradoxical, if you think about it. For one thing, it doesn't actually take place at night. For another, it's all about handing things out for free and there actually isn't any catch. It is a growing celebration of both the elegantly written word and the bound and printed page in an era of increasing pixelation and isolation. As an event, it's unconventional and surprising, rare and awe-inspiring.
And I'm a book guy, and I like to talk about books, so for me the fact that World Book Night is exciting and great is a little bit of a no-brainer. After all, it's an entire day devoted to putting books into the hands of people who wouldn't ordinarily read them. It not only encourages but requires givers to talk about their favorite books, something most of us, myself included, will happily do for hours with no provocation at all.
And then there's the list of books. What a list it is.
This year's list of World Book Night titles is easily the best ever. Catch-22 and Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential share the bill with Tales of the City, The Botany of Desire, and Cheryl Strayed's Wild. There's more short fiction (Rebecca Lee's deservedly acclaimed Bobcat tops the list) and some graphic novels, too. There are books with large print, and books in Spanish. There is something here for every reader, and it's visceral, it's alive, it's out on the streets. This is passion for literature at its very finest.
But that's not what's really remarkable about an event like World Book Night.
We like to say, these days, that we're wired, that we're always on. Our phones talk to our computers, our computers talk to our cars, and everything in our lives seems to keep tabs on us. We are hooked up and dialed in and synchronized in every imaginable way.
In a world where our possessions do the talking for us, there's very little room to talk to each other. And as a result, we don't do it so much anymore.
I know you've probably heard this argument before, but I'd like to ask you to take a moment and really think about it now. In a single day, how many people do you interact with, face to face? Think. Of these, how many are immediate family members, or people you live with? How many are co-workers, or friends you've known for years?
How many are total strangers? Any?
We used to talk to people – to bus drivers, to cabbies, to grocery clerks, to the folks we were sharing the elevator with. We used to exchange pleasantries, make eye contact, laugh about the weather or a seasonally appropriate sports team. And sometimes, just once in awhile, we'd have conversations as unexpected as they were fulfilling, as brief as they were meaningful.
I'm sure this still happens. Of course it does. But in a world where our constant quest for connection, for connectivity, has bred mass disconnection, it's even rarer than it used to be.
I'm not what you'd call an extrovert. I'm not a guy who seeks out social situations, or puts himself at the center of the crowd. But I, for one, wish that we would connect a little more.
And herein, I'd like to suggest, lies the true value of World Book Night.
Anybody who's familiar with the ever-popular genre of time-travel science fiction has probably heard of something called the Butterfly Effect. It goes like this: somewhere in China, a butterfly flaps its wings, and this very slight disturbance of the air sets in motion a chain of events resulting, perhaps centuries later, in a hurricane off the eastern seaboard of the United States. A cooking fire in ancient Turkey spawns a drought in modern Texas. A squashed flower in a long-ago South America leads to the extinction of a species of bird one thousand years down the line. There are infinite variations on the theme, but the central element remains the same – a minute, inconsequential, seemingly random action can have monumental effects in another time and place.
But let's forget, for a moment, about the insects and the storm systems. Let's talk now about people and books, and about very short conversations and everyday connections and how an action you barely think twice about might change someone's life.
Say a guy is walking through an unfamiliar city and is about to make a left turn. He looks lost, and a city resident suggests he make a right turn instead and check out a fantastic cafe. Maybe that guy takes the right and ends up meeting his future wife. Maybe he avoids the runaway garbage truck which, seconds later, comes barreling down the street from the left-hand side. Maybe he just gets a really good cup of coffee. Maybe.
Or maybe a woman sees a man in a lobby or a waiting room or on a bus and thinks he seems down, and shows him an already-wrinkled snapshot of her newborn granddaughter. Maybe it's just a picture she's showing to everybody. But maybe this man has been considering taking his own life today. Maybe this is just what he needs to keep living, to keep moving forward. Maybe not. But maybe.
Maybe a girl who only reads when she has to passes by someone in a park with a box of books. And maybe she picks out Code Name Verity, or Miss Perengrine's Home for Peculiar Children. Or maybe it's The Perks of Being a Wallflower or This Boy's Life.
And maybe she doesn't like it, but passes it on to a friend. Or maybe she reads it and loves it and keeps it, and starts looking for other books just like it. Maybe she realizes that the book she really wants to read is one that hasn't been written yet. Maybe she sets out to write that book.
Maybe, years from now, that girl wins the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
World Book Night is a day for books. But it's about more than books, too.
It's about talking to strangers and sharing something you love. It's about connection instead of connectivity.
So, we're doing World Book Night again. It's a little crazy, to be sure, and maybe it seems like our world is now too wired in and disconnected for a bunch of people wandering around handing out free books to make any difference, but if you think about it, it doesn't take much. It's only a couple of seconds, an abbreviated motion of the wrist and hand, a couple of shared words. Each book given on World Book Night, and each book received, is an instance of simple, profound connection in a world where it's all too rare.
And if you ask me, that's something.
On April 23rd, if somebody comes at you, offering a free book, don't ignore them. Don't act like you haven't seen them, or pretend to check your phone. Don't wave them away with a curt "maybe next time" (next time, after all, is next year). Instead, take a minute and talk.
Maybe you'll realize you have a lot in common. Maybe you'll hear a joke that will keep you laughing all day. Maybe you'll get an anecdote or a restaurant recommendation or a piece of advice that will change your life someday.
Maybe you'll just end up with a great book.
And that's not so bad, is it?