Reading the first-hand accounts of last week’s World Book Night has me all green-eyed, you guys. How cool to deliver a great book into the hands of an unsuspecting stranger! How cool to select the method of distribution! How cool to see people’s faces when you hand them a book and shake their hands and take pictures to capture the moment!
But the coolest part, I would imagine, is the feeling of holding in your hands the book to be given away, especially if it’s one you really love, and thinking about what that book (and, if you’ll permit a moment of grandeur, reading itself) has meant to you and might mean to this person to whom you’re bestowing it. It’s a moment of pure potential energy, like the few seconds on Christmas morning between waking up and swinging your feet over the bedside. I get the shivers just thinking about it.
All this WBN jealousy got me thinking about that moment and about the gesture of handing someone a beloved book, which led to a question: of all the books I’ve read, if I could only give out one book, which would it be and why?
At first glance, this may not seem like a particularly tough question. I should just pick my favorite book, right? Or maybe one by my favorite author?
It’s not that simple, though. First of all, my favorite book – The Lord of the Rings – isn’t necessarily the best book to hand to the citizenry at large (three-part fantasy epics not being everyone’s cup of tea and what have you). And, much though I adore them, I wouldn’t hand a stranger a copy of The Brothers Karamazov or Infinite Jest in a blind giveaway. They’re both a little presumptuous for the situation, I’d argue (remember, WBN encourages givers to hand out books to light or non-readers). No, I’d want to pick a more inviting book, something that passes the “Three Bears” test: intellectually stimulating but not so dense that it’s a chore, well-known and well-liked but not something they’re likely to have been assigned in school, a page-turner that isn’t mindless, and representative of its author’s excellence (WBN presumably wants this book to be a kind of jump start to further reading). Not too hot and not to cold, but just right.
I can feel the criteria threatening to overshadow the selection, but choosing the one book you’d give away to represent the literature you love is like picking the one song you’d play for aliens if they landed on earth and asked what music is. There’s a lot to consider, so I sat in front of my bookshelves and gave it a good think.
I thought about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or even No Country for Old Men (both good entry points to the work of a celebrated author; not too long; reasonably popular), but the grimness of the former and the violence in the latter (not to mention McCarthy’s style, which puts off some people) disqualify them.
I thought about Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (the book I’m most likely to hand a friend who asks for a recommendation out of the blue), but its pacing (slow, to put it mildly) and ponderous quality might not draw in a light or non-reader the way I’d want my one pick to.
I thought about John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Written by a major author? Check. Engrossing plot? Check. Literary heft? Check (also, some literal heft, but it’s manageable). Wait a second… is this it? Have I found the One Book?
As soon as I ask the question, I feel completely ridiculous.
Just look at the stupid thing. The One Book? Listen, I love to rank and order things (particularly books) as much as anybody I know. It’s fun and an easy way to start a discussion (or shouting match), but only arrogance could make me think that (A) there is a perfect book for this situation, a magical key that will unlock the wonders of reading for whoever opens it or (B) that, even if there were such a book, I’m in any way qualified to determine it.
Looking at the WBN giveaway books from this year and last humbles me pretty quickly. They’ve handed out prose and poetry, Pulitzer winners and mass market thrillers, books for kids and Spanish speakers, funny books and tragic books, fantasy and YA. In other words, the good people at WBN recognize that there are no Platonic ideals in reading – no perfect book, as Malcolm Gladwell might say, just perfect books. They’ve extended an invitation, not issued an assignment. Bravo to them for it.
I’m applying to give in 2014 to cure my envy. Evidently you can request the book you’d like to distribute, but you know what? I’ll take what I can get. Happily.
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