27 April 2013

World Book Night 2013

 Tuesday, April 23, was World Book Night 2013.  Just like last year, I applied to be a Book Giver and was chosen to give out my first choice of book, Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist.  This year’s WBN titles can be found here.  I had made arrangements to give half of my books to one of our community’s local shelters, Stepping Stones.  Although I could not personally give the books to the families living at the shelter due to privacy concerns, it felt great to drop off the books there, knowing that there was probably a lack of interesting reading material at this point in their lives.

As the sun was setting, I drove to the courthouse square that defines our downtown.  The courthouse itself is an imposing granite structure, built in the Neoclassic Revival style in 1916.  It is still used as the county courthouse.  Surrounded by a hundred or more elm trees, it is the definitive heart of Prescott.  After I parked, I surveyed the square before exiting my car.  The trees had begun leafing out, and there were several clusters of people gathered.  I discarded labels such as homeless vagabond, lapsed alcoholic, teenager with too little supervision, boys playing football, couple walking dog.  Rather than identifying these people in categories I might normally feel compelled to place them, I saw them as potential readers. 

With my box of books in hand, I got out of the car.  It was a warm spring evening and the resident owl was hoo-hoo-hooing into the dusk.  I first approached two men who sat on the curb facing the Vietnam War Memorial on the west side of the courthouse.  On the opposite side of the street is Prescott’s famous Whiskey Row, where I gave my books away last year.  The two men on the curb had an extremely large dog that immediately stood up as I approached.  It wasn’t acting in a threatening way, so I continued, smiling as I explained tonight’s event.  I offered them each a copy of the book, which they readily accepted.  They seemed genuinely surprised and happy on multiple levels:  not only did I acknowledge them, but I engaged them in conversation, I smiled at them in a sincere way, and I offered them something, expecting nothing in return. 

As I wished them well and turned toward another group of people, a large man was approaching.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw him begin to run toward me.  He, too, was grinning, as were the men I’d just left.  He called to me, “Whatever you gave them, I want one too!”

I laughed and said, “Of course,” handing him a copy.  He walked over to the other two men and began talking loudly.  They compared the copies I’d handed them.

I wound around the courthouse while the owl made its presence known.  I did not see it although I shifted my gaze again and again toward the trees silhouetted against the darkening sky.  But I could sense it watching over everyone on the square.  I handed out books.  Everyone was receptive.  It was a much different experience from last year, when I stood in one place and waited for people to approach me.  Each person last year was cautious and guarded, not sure if they wanted what I had to offer, even if it was free.  A lot of people turned me down or even refused to make eye contact with me.    This year, the only person who turned me down was a teenage girl who claimed she’d already read The Alchemist, adding that it was “a fantastic book.” 

Finally, down to my last book, I approached an older man seated on the courthouse steps.  He was smoking a cigarette and had arranged several bags of belongs around himself.  He looked content but tired, and I suspected he appeared much older than his actual age.  One last time I explained the event and offered him a copy.

“It’s a book about following your dream.”

He crushed out his cigarette and reached for the book.  He thanked me and said, “That’s right up my alley.”  There was a light in his eyes that hadn't been there when I'd first approached him.

We’ve heard the old adage it is better to give than receive hundreds of times.  But it really is true.  There is much joy in giving and sharing, so much more than our consumer driven society would care to admit.  When I taught ESL at a small Hebrew school, I learned about the eight levels of Tzedakah, a word most often translated as ‘charity’: 
  1. Giving begrudgingly
  2. Giving less that you should, but giving it cheerfully.
  3. Giving after being asked
  4. Giving before being asked
  5. Giving when you do not know the recipient's identity, but the recipient knows your identity
  6. Giving when you know the recipient's identity, but the recipient doesn't know your identity
  7. Giving when neither party knows the other's identity
  8. Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant
I was reminded of those levels tonight.  Tzedakah doesn’t have the same connotation as charity, though, which in the English-speaking world usually carries the impression of a magnanimous rich person giving to someone less fortunate.  But in Judaism, it is everyone’s duty, not just those  who are more fortunate.  It is an act of justice and righteousness.  I also thought of a friend’s comment when I’d told her that my daughter Madeleine could read.  She said, “She has the keys to the kingdom now.”  And I can think of no better way to advance humanity than by sharing books and spreading the love of reading, person to person.  What if the kingdom were that accessible, to all? 

What book would you share with another, if you could choose any book at all? 


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