The way people strode by with little to no eye contact, you would have thought there was some catch to my offering them free copies of "Catch-22," Joseph Heller's famous novel.
But there was no catch, because Wednesday, April 23, was World Book Night.
I had heard about the event before, about how publishers and booksellers chose one day to distribute thousands of free novels and non-fiction works. Now in its third year in this country, World Book Night celebrates the reading of books.
That's a gospel I can get behind, so I signed up to hand out one of the 36 titles chosen this year by a panel of booksellers and librarians. Along with "Catch-22," other familiar books on the list included "This Boy's Life" by Tobias Wolff, "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" by Maria Semple, and "Wild" by Cheryl Strayed, the recent Whatcom Reads! selection.
I started about 12:30 p.m. Wednesday outside of Taco Del Mar, at Railroad Avenue and East Magnolia Street. I figured I could tap into the downtown lunch crowd and quickly place my 20 copies of "Catch-22" into appreciative readers' hands. But it took longer than I expected, nearly half an hour.
While "Catch-22" is well-known - with some 10 million copies sold and a movie version out years ago - it was clear that many people were unfamiliar with Heller's novel. One person even seemed to think I was the author.
Still, enough people had heard about the book, or had read it year ago and wanted to reread it, that I was able to wrap up my contribution to the wonderment of books.
Many people these days worry about the future of books, especially the variety printed on paper. According to a January survey by Pew Research Center, 76 percent of American adults had consumed at least one print, digital or audio book in the past year, and the typical America adult had read five books over that time.
I find those numbers moderately encouraging. I also find it interesting that the book industry considers it worthwhile to give away half a million paperbacks for free.
For World Book Night, authors of the selected titles forgo their royalties, and publishers cover the cost of producing the specially printed editions. Bookstores and libraries relay the boxes of books to volunteer "book givers," myself included. Each box had 20 copies of one title.
I picked up my box at Village Books. Sam Kaas, the staffer who oversaw the store's participation, said he doesn't suffer any angst about giving away free copies of the product his employer sells.
"On this day, it's all about putting a book in someone's hand," he said. "It's just about sharing a book."
Kaas did plenty of that, distributing eight boxes to people at Whatcom Community College.
About 40 people, several of them store employees, distributed titles via Village Books, twice the number of people from last year, Kaas said.
At Bellingham Public Library, nine staff members and 13 community volunteers picked up their boxes, while three volunteers picked up their books at Ferndale Public Library. Another six people got their boxes at Bellingham's Barnes & Noble Booksellers.
So, next year on April 23, don't be surprised if you see people giving out free books. If the book interests you, go ahead, take one. If you're not interested in the book but you know someone who might be, go ahead, take it. Either way, there's no catch.
Contact Dean Kahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-715-2291.
To learn more about World Book Night, go to www.us.worldbooknight.org.
Reach DEAN KAHN at email@example.com or call 715-2291.