This is the third time I’ve given away books on World Book Night. Each year, I’ve been careful to select a book that is set in the Upper Midwest: in 2012, the novel I gave out, A Reliable Wife, was set in northern Wisconsin; last year’s selection, Population: 485, is Wisconsinite Mike Perry's humorous essays about his life and adventures in a small town. I drove both years across the High Bridge from Duluth, Minn., where I live, to Superior, Wisc., the hard-scrabble town on the other side of the bay, to give out books in bars there.
This year I stayed in Minnesota and I stayed out of bars. I gave away 20 copies of The Lighthouse Road by Peter Geye, one of my favorite reads in 2012, a novel that had all of the booksellers buzzing about it during the first Heartland Fall Forum that year. It’s an intense tale of a young Norwegian immigrant and her misbegotten son, set at the dawn of the 20th century on Minnesota's frontier: the remote, woodsy region between Duluth and the Canadian border. I figured that people who actually live next to Lake Superior, which figures so prominently in the story, would be more than receptive to taking a chance on a book given them by a complete stranger.
When I nominated The Lighthouse Road as one of this year’s selections and applied to be a book giver, I expressed my desire to walk along Duluth’s scenic boardwalk next to Lake Superior, joyfully giving away books. It was the perfect and visually stunning backdrop, I thought, to giving away this particular novel. All I needed to do was to point to the Lake, and people would eagerly take a copy from me.
The dream was much more romantic than the reality. It was chilly, about 40 degrees, and few people were out and about on the lakewalk in the middle of the afternoon. The people I did find were receptive, though, with several mentioning that they’d heard about WBN on Minnesota Public Radio and/or had read about it in the Duluth News Tribune. The newspaper had run a huge front-page story below the fold two days before, touting Geye’s visit to Duluth on April 22 to kick off WBN 2014 at Fitger’s Bookstore. I had even been quoted in that DNT article, describing my previous WBN experiences. The paper called me a “local book pusher,” a label I will wear with pride.
Walking to the small lighthouse at the end of a pier, I gave away books to about a half dozen people gazing out to sea, with one man asking me if I wanted a donation and a middle-aged couple from the Twin Cities expressing their hope that the Swedish college student accompanying them would practice her English by reading it. Another woman was especially thrilled, as she lives in Superior, which no longer has a bookstore since J.W. Beecroft closed a few years ago.
Afterwards, the further I walked along the boardwalk away from the pier, the more difficult it was to give away books. One couple I approached told me they’d been offered the same book. They said they could afford to buy their own books, and didn’t need one from me. One elderly man insisted he did not read books and almost angrily refused to take it, despite my telling him he was exactly the kind of person WBN was meant to reach.
Forty minutes after I’d given away that first book to a friendly pair of women my age, I still had six books left in my bag. I needed a change of scenery. I decided I’d stay close to Lake Superior, but would go where the people are: the Plaza Super One supermarket, close enough to some economically-depressed neighborhoods that many lower-income citizens shop there. It took about 10 minutes of my standing in the parking lot -- which offers shoppers a truly glorious view of Lake Superior -- to give away the rest of my books. One senior citizen was quite excited to receive a book and started reading it right away as she waited for her taxicab. A young man told me he didn’t read much, but if his girlfriend liked it, he’d definitely give it a try also. The heavily-tattooed cab driver picking up the senior citizen to whom I’d already given a copy wanted one. As I was giving my spiel to a young man, and handing him a book, another one approached me and asked for a copy. “And I am going to give it to my mother to read, after I finish it,” he said, “She’ll love it.” I gave my last copy to a burly young man who looked like he'd stepped from the pages of The Lighthouse Road. He told me he’d loved reading Root Beer Lady: The Story of Dorothy Molter by Bob Cary, and, since he’s from Ely, a frontier town on the edge of the Boundary Waters wilderness, he knew he’d love reading about Thea Eide and her son, Odd.
Sometimes, WBN doesn’t go exactly the way a book giver anticipates it will go. But that’s okay. While the mission of WBN is to get books into the hands of people who don’t have easy access to them, my personal mission is to get out of my comfort zone, and to talk up a book I love to someone with whom I would otherwise never interact. Missions were accomplished yesterday. And, this year, it’s not simply World Book Night for me – it’s World Book Nights: I intend to brave the cold again today and hand out 20 copies of 12 Years a Slave at the bus transit center in downtown Duluth. After all, I am the local book pusher.