Berkeley author Michael Lewis sauntered into Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore on College Avenue on Monday, dressed for the 85-degree weather in a white cotton jacket and pants.
The crowd, which had been expecting him a half hour sooner and had started to disperse, quickly returned to the seats set up before a podium. Within seconds, Lewis, the bestselling writer of books such as Moneyball, Liar’s Poker, The Blind Side and The Big Short, had captivated the audience with his easygoing humor.
Lewis had come to Mrs. Dalloway’s to promote World Book Night, a national effort to get books into the hands of people who rarely read.
On April 23, 25,000 volunteers will give away 500,000 books in 6,000 towns around the United States. Book lovers will hand out the specially printed paperback books at senior centers, skating rinks, bus stops, food pantries, schools — even on the street. The idea is for the volunteers to start a conversation with someone who rarely reads and convey their excitement about books. This year, 27 volunteers are participating through Mrs. Dalloway’s.
“The person you want to give the book to wants to know why you are giving it and what you loved,” Ann Leyhe, who co-owns the bookstore with Marion Abbott, told the group before Lewis’ arrival.
During World Book Night 2012, Leyhe went to Willard Park around 5 p.m. with a stack of Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time, a narrative about the huge dust storms that uprooted thousands of Americans during the Depression. She struck up conversations with strangers and told them why she loved the book, and why they might too.
“It was a little embarrassing at first, but once people got involved in a conversation about the book itself, it was fun,” said Leyhe.
Helen Marcus and her husband, David Williamson, the coach of the Berkeley Rhino Youth Rugby Club at Berkeley High School, planned to hand out Walter Mosley’s novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, to team members this year. In 2012, they gave away Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights. Even though the athletes go to colleges as varied as Yale and San Francisco City College, they are not readers, said Marcus.
“It’s saying we think this is important and it’s something you can do over the summer,” said Marcus. “How many end up on the shelf, unread, I don’t know.”
The idea for World Book Night started in London in 2010 during a roundtable discussion among book industry members about how to encourage more adults to read. It got its start in the United Kingdom and Ireland in 2011 and spread to the United States and Germany in 2012. That year, 80,000 volunteers gave out 2.5 million books in four countries.
World Book Night is celebrated on April 23 because it is the Unesco International Day of the Book, as well as Shakespeare’s birthday, according to the group’s website. Both Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes also died on April 23, 1616.
An independent panel of booksellers and librarians chooses the books for distribution. The publishers print up special editions and donate the books, and the authors forgo their royalties.
Lewis, whose book Moneyball is one of the book’s slated for distribution, started his talk with a confession: he wasn’t a good reader. He often puts down a book after a few pages because he considers the writing clumsy.
“Being a writer interferes with being a reader,” said Lewis. ‘You get more critical. You become more ruthless in your reading habits when you write every day because you see the mistakes… It is hard to read generously. The one thing I don’t like about what I do for a living is the effect on my reading habits.”
Lewis said that one of pitfalls of being an author is that readers often take away things from his books he never intended. For example, he was drawn to the story of the Oakland Athletics and its manager Billy Beane because he was intrigued how people, in this case ballplayers, were mis-valued by the market. He detailed how the As “priced” players in Moneyball and was worried Beane would be mad that he exposed his secret strategy to the baseball industry.
But when Beane read Moneyball, he was more concerned that Lewis reported he often used the F-word then the revelation of his trade secrets. Beane was worried his mother would disapprove of his swearing, said Lewis.
And disapprove she did. When Lewis did a reading at a San Diego bookstore, a woman stood in the back and glowered at him. After the reading was over, she approached Lewis and said, “My son does not talk like that!” It was Beane’s mother. Lewis said he took her out to dinner to try to calm her down, but “two hours later she was still as furious.”
“Authors go about their business because they are saying something,” said Lewis. “This curious thing happens. You say it and it doesn’t get heard in the way you thought.”
Volunteers must sign up for World Book Night ahead of time. Those interested in helping out in 2014 can sign up here.
The 30 World Book Night U.S. titles for 2013, alphabetical by author, are:
- The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (Anchor Books/Random House)
- City of Thieves, David Benioff (Plume/Penguin Group (USA))
- Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury (Simon & Schuster Paperbacks)
- My Antonia, Willa Cather (Dover)
- Girl with a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier (Plume/Penguin Group (USA))
- The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros (Vintage/Random House)
- La casa en Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros; translated by Elena Poniatowska (Vintage Español/Random House)
- The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho (HarperOne/HarperCollins)
- El Alquimista, Paulo Coelho (Rayo/HarperCollins)
- The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh (Ballantine Books/Random House)
- The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan (Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
- Bossypants, Tina Fey (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books)
- Good Omens, Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett (William Morrow Paperbacks/HarperCollins)
- Still Alice, Lisa Genova (Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster)
- Looking for Alaska, John Green (Speak/Penguin Group (USA))
- Playing for Pizza, John Grisham (Bantam/Random House)
- Mudbound, Hillary Jordan (Algonquin Books/Workman Publishing)
- The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster; illus. by Jules Feiffer (Yearling/Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers)
- Moneyball, Michael Lewis (W. W. Norton)
- The Tender Bar, J. R. Moehringer (Hyperion)
- Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley (Simon & Schuster)
- Middle School, The Worst Years of My Life, James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
- Population: 485, Michael Perry (HarperPerennial/HarperCollins)
- The Lightning Thief, Rick Riordan (Disney-Hyperion)
- Montana Sky, Nora Roberts (Berkley/Penguin Group (USA))
- Look Again, Lisa Scottoline (St. Martin’s)
- Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris (Back Bay Books/Little Brown)
- The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith (Anchor Books/Random House)
- Glaciers, Alexis M. Smith (Tin House Books)
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Mark Twain (Dover)
- Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward (Bloomsbury)
- Favorite American Poems (Large Print edition) various authors (Dover)
Listen to the podcast of the 3 Michaels in conversation [12.24.12]
3 Michaels talk writing, inspiration and Berkeley quirks [12.11.12]
The 3 Michaels of Berkeley: Supporting, supported [12.10.12]
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