Today is World Book Night 2012, and I am one of 25,000 “givers” who will personally distribute half a million free books today. As part of the campaign to change lives through literacy, volunteers will be sharing copies of their favorite books at VA hospitals, nursing homes, ball parks, mass transit, diners and other places where would-be readers are underserved. To give away twenty copies of PEACE LIKE A RIVER by Leif Enger, I chose the Covenant House, a shelter for homeless, throwaway and runaway teens.
It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.
I introduced myself to a staff member, and told her why I was there. “Do you think there are any residents here that would like to have a copy of this book?” I asked.
“I think so,” she said as she read the back cover. Then she looked up at me. “And you’re just giving them away?”
“For free, to anyone who wants one.”
In the adjacent lunchroom, two dozen or so teenagers—many of them scarred, tattooed, broken-looking—talked and ate in small groups. Rose announced me and my intentions, and the kids looked at me somewhat suspiciously. As I told them why I loved this incredible story of a young boy’s journey across the frozen Badlands of the Dakotas in search of his fugitive older brother, it occurred to me that I might not be able to give away any books at all.
Then one tall, thin boy raised his track-marked arm and said, “I’d like a copy.”
“You would?” I said, relieved. “What’s your name?”
“Donny. I never had my own book before.”
“Me too. Can I have one?”
“And me.” They came one by one, and I pressed a brand-new copy into each of their hands. To a one, they thanked me with such sincerity I didn’t think I could bear it.
“Yes, please. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did,” I said, and this went on until I had only one copy left.
Then a heavy-set boy came up and said, “Can I have that last one?”
“Yes, of course.”
“My name is Voltaire,” he said. “Like the philosopher. Did you write this book?”
“I wish I had.”
“Can I show you my poem? I don’t know anybody I can show it to.” He unfolded a typewritten page from his back pocket. “My mom taught me a lot of vocabulary,” he said, “before she kicked me out.”
He bent down to my ear so that he could whisper it aloud, even though I could read along with him. It was filled with spelling mistakes and grammar errors and despair and pain and beauty and also hope, because he’s still alive. “This was going to be my suicide note. But I decided to make it into a poem instead.” I wish I could post it for you to read, but I promised him I would keep it private.
“Thank you for sharing it with me,” I said. “I hope when you feel that pain again in your life, you’ll keep trying to find the poem inside it. You’re a good writer. You should keep writing. And keep reading.”
“I will,” he said, folding the poem back along its worn creases. “Starting with this.” He pressed the cut edge of the book to his nose and took a deep breath and he said, “This smells so good.”
I looked around the room at these drug users and abuse victims—these beautiful souls with their own stories whose lives were changed by their circumstances. I told them that I would come back in a month, and we could have a discussion of the book. They were all so unexpectedly enthusiastic about the idea of a Covenant House book club, even though some of them will have moved on by then. By discovering the freedom and self-reliance and majesty and bravery within this book, perhaps these kids will be better able to find it within themselves.
World Book Night is about hoping that through an introduction to the love of reading, people can change their lives for the better. And I think that because of today and Voltaire and the other eager, grateful receivers of the books that I was able to share, that my life may be forever changed, too.