The Things We Carried on World Book Night


  • Aimee Levitt
Last night was World Book Night. We started with a box of books. Twenty copies of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, to be precise. We could give them to anybody we wanted.

At first we thought it would be fun to pun on the book's title and give copies to people who were already carrying things. Maybe at the Gateway Transportation Center, where people are already hauling tons of luggage.

But then we thought, Who really needs this book? Sure, a traveler could always use something to ease a long bus or train ride. But who would really need to hear what it has to say? O'Brien's short stories are about the experiences of a platoon in Vietnam ca. 1970 (including a private named Tim O'Brien) and a meditation on the aftermath of those experiences -- the things the men carry home with them.

We decided to ask O'Brien himself. "I'd go to the VFW or American Legion," he told us, "and say, 'Here's your book.'"

In the end, we decided to do both.

We started at the Gateway Transportation Center downtown, where an Amtrak train and a couple of Greyhound buses were waiting. There's something a bit odd about handing out a book. You feel akin to those religious folks who stand on street corners who wish you a blessed day and a life free of sin, which you can find by following the instructions in the tiny pamphlets they shove into your hand as you rush by. (And which you deposit into the nearest trash can.) You're not proselytizing, exactly. But not a lot of people read books anymore, either.

One of the first people we approached was a woman trying to wrestle her clothes into an enormous suitcase. "Go away," she said. Another man, who had a swollen eye and a scab on his forehead and who looked as though he'd been through quite a lot, shook his head when we told him what the book was about. "I've had enough of that."

Some people were surprised, but took the books anyway. Some started to read almost immediately.

Courtney Case (l) and Brenda Smith (r) -

  • Courtney Case (l) and Brenda Smith (r)

Only one person we'd met had heard of the book before. "I love that book!" said Terry Galloway. "I had to read it for my American history class." We gave him a copy anyway, in case he wanted to read it again or pass it along to a friend.

Terry Galloway and Stephanie Jenkins
  • Terry Galloway and Stephanie Jenkins

Then we set off for VFW Post 3500 in Maplewood.

The weekly trivia night wasn't due to start for another 45 minutes, but already a few people were gathered at the bar.

"Why are you doing this?" demanded David Pinson.

We explained that everybody involved in World Book Night -- the publisher, the binder, the distributor, even UPS -- had worked together to donate the books. "It's to get people to read more," we explained.

David Pinson and Jacki Hlavaty
  • David Pinson and Jacki Hlavaty

Pinson was still skeptical. And, really, who could blame him? Our explanation sounded a little weird and lame, even if it was true. There's a hidden catch everywhere. (Maybe there's one in World Book Night, too, but we haven't heard anything yet.)

It was only after the bartender, Jacki Hlavaty, and a few other patrons took books that Pinson grudgingly accepted a copy. Sue Beck planned to give hers to her dad. Nick Palazzolo didn't go to Vietnam himself, but he served during that era and tries to read everything he can get his hands on. "People don't read anymore," he said sadly, clutching his book

Sue Beck and Nick Palazzolo -

  • Sue Beck and Nick Palazzolo

Jerome Simon, a former English major, had actually heard about World Book Night and explained the concept to Wax, who was sitting beside him. "I love the smell of books," Simon said. He flipped open his copy of The Things They Carried and took a long whiff.

Jerome Simon and Eva Gibson -

  • Jerome Simon and Eva Gibson

After we'd given a book to everybody in the bar, we still had two copies left over. Hlavaty agreed to hang onto them for us. "I know a couple of people I'm going to give them to," she said.

We were grateful. It sounded like she had a far better idea of who could use the books than we did.

When we got home, we saw that a friend of ours, also a World Book Night distributor, had stopped by and left us a book. It was The Things They Carried. We were glad. We really need to read it again.

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