Upon collecting my 24 copies of Pride and Prejudice from my local Waterstone’s, I found myself wondering, what have I done? Why have I committed myself to lugging all these heavy books around town in the hopes of finding twenty-four strangers willing to accept a gift from a crazy lady absolutely insistent that there is no catch?
As I unpacked the box back at home and set about filling in the codes in the front covers of each and every copy, again the thought struck me, why did I think this would be fun? I looked out through the rain-splattered windows of my flat, at the grey skies and quietly shimmering puddles on the ground, then back to the cosy sofa, the steaming cup of tea and thewarmth emanating from the television in the corner. I remembered being excited when I was chosen as one of the World Book Night givers, but was struggling to remember the reason why.
Two hours later, I stepped back into the flat, a smile firmly plastered across my face and a warmth a hundred times stronger than that of my television radiating through my chest. I had just had one of the most special experiences of my life.
I had taken my huge holdall, filled with pristine, beautiful copies of one of my favourite books of all time, on to the train towards Littlehampton, with a plan to give them out to all the bored-looking commuters I so often see, twiddling their thumbs or staring gloomily out the window. Instead, I was gripped with fear at the prospect of talking to anybody at all on the packed, rush hour train, let alone complete strangers. So I got off again. At Worthing Station.
Now Worthing isn’t exactly the most wealthy town along the South Coast, nor the most cultured. Most people you see in town are clad in hoodies or tracksuit bottoms; hardly the approachable, kindly folk I would really have loved to have been interacting with. But still, I had to start somewhere. The first person I approached was a young mum pushing a buggy with an adorable child inside who gazed up at me in wonder. The wary look on the mum’s face soon disappeared when she realised I actually wanted to give her something, and for free, rather than take something from her. She said thank you three or four times as she walked off, a big grin on her face.
My heart was lifted and I went on to give out ten copies within about three minutes - people were clamouring around me to find out what was being given out, and, more importantly, why. I spoke to a group of people about World Book Night, and why I was giving out free things with absolutely no catch. Several of them said they never have time to read books, and looked like they were about to walk away. When I suggested they take it on the train and give it a go, and if they still weren’t won over then they pass it on to a friend or fellow commuter, they came straight back and clutched at their new possessions as a child does its favourite toy. One lady wearing a hijab said she didn’t feel she could take a book as she couldn’t read very well. I practically forced one into her hands, sounding like a crazy person as I raved about how Pride and Prejudice would make the perfect first read.
I walked back into the station and one of the ever-friendly station guards approached me to ask what was going on. When I explained, he asked if he could take a copy to give to his daughter, who was just learning to read and has just decided she wants to be a writer when she grows up. I gladly handed one over. He paused for a second, before giving me a big hug. It was such a lovely moment, and it made me remember why I had been so excited about World Book Night in the first place. Even better - he then dragged me over to the other guards stood around the ticket gates and asked me to tell them all about it too. Most said that they sit in the train driver’s cabin bored as anything on their journeys home, and loved the thought of leaving a copy of the book in each one for various ticket inspectors and train drivers to read whenever they get a chance. I gave them a copy each, and each one of them shook my hand and thanked me profusely. I felt guilty to be taking any credit for such a wonderful incentive - it is the hard work of the hundreds of people involved in organising and manufacturing the books in the first place that they should have been grateful to.
After giving out my last copies to some very polite and well-spoken young boys who were hanging around outside the station, I walked back up to the ticket gates to get on my train home. The guards were still all talking excitedly about their plans for what to do with their books. I reciprocated their big grins and friendly waves as I got on my train, my only regret being that I didn’t have any more books to give out (and that I hadn’t thought to bring anything for myself to read on the way home!).
Next year, I reckon I could give out 100 books, easy.