My little book corner at Russell Square.

You know those chaps who stand around the Holborn tube station soliciting donations for different charities? Or the men handing out free newspapers during rush hour? Yeah, all of us know them.

And I’m sure some of us who weren’t interested in stopping will usually just walk around these people and avoid eye contact as much as possible just so that they will not solicit a conversation. Well, I kind of know how that feels now.

Some Chevening scholars this year decided to take part in the World Book Night celebration for 2013, and yours truly was fortunate enough to be selected and allocated five books (three copies of The Road Home by Rose Tremain and two copies of Treasure Island by Robert L. Stevenson) to be given away. Being the hardworking and scholarly graduate student I am (hah!), I procrastinated long enough that I realised I had yet to give out any books by the actual day of the celebration (23 April 2013).

Since the weather was perfect (averaging 18’C, possibly the warmest day London had seen this year!), I decided to trot down to Russell Square, in the literarily historic Bloomsbury area of the London Borough of Camden, and set up a little corner to give away the books. I also had with me around 10 books from the Introducing… series of books on various philosophers that I did not manage to read all year (and probably will never be able to, considering how busy things are getting) that I hoped to give away alongside the books allocated to me.

I started my “shift” around 12:30 pm under the hot scalding sun, right by the water fountain in the middle, by setting up the books on one of the wooden benches, with some A4 papers scribbled with ‘FREE BOOKS’ to get the crowd’s attention. I put extra emphasis on the ‘free’ part of my note because hey, nothing gets people going like free stuff, right?

My little book corner at Russell Square.

Although there weren’t any expectations for us, who volunteered to be part of this book giveaway project under the Chevening Book Group, to do anything fancy to give away the books, I thought it would be a great opportunity to speak to random strangers who cross the park to get from one end to the other or who just sit around and enjoy the blast of Vitamin D from the good ol’ sun.

In total I managed to give away 14 books, 4 from the World Book Night 2013 books allocated to me and 10 from the Introducing… series of books that I brought along with me. Of the 13 people who took up on my offer of free books, 7 were male and 6 were female, with ages ranging from 7 to over 60 years old.

One of Lord Bobo’s faithful minions dropped by to pick up a copy of Rose Tremain’s The Road Home, promising to pass the book along after she’s done with them.

It was pretty interesting to initiate conversation with random strangers with the offer of free books because most would just give you a blank deer-in-headlights look when you reassure them that it really is free and that they didn’t even have to leave me their names, contact information, date of birth, social security number or their Sunday tennis partner’s mobile number.

There were quite a number of students who were aware of the project and were more than happy for the opportunity to take part . There were also one or two tourists who appreciated free books and wondered if I do this kind of thing for a living every day.

What was most interesting, I thought, was that there were also a few people who took up the free book offer and were bookshop owners themselves. They used to run similar projects with their respective bookstores in the past which finally had to be shut because their business suffered with the decline of the reading culture or, because avid readers who did not give up their habit of reading, had shifted to digital copies of books instead. As I was talking to one of them, the bookshop owner remarked that some people just weren’t interested in reading physical copies of books anymore, and they would rather just go with digital alternatives like the Kindle or iPad, which can store up to hundreds of books without breaking a sweat.

Rebecca signing her copy of the book, promising to pass it on.

With all 14 copies given away by 3:00 pm, it was a pretty successful endeavour, if I may say so myself. Hopefully those who collected the free books will enjoy them and continue the spirit of the giveaway by passing on the books to their friends, families or hell, even random strangers.

Perhaps then they too will know what it’s like to be one of those chaps handing out free newspapers.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to reading other stories of how the other volunteers gave away their books and the uniquely different experiences they have had.

Noor, a UCL student from Jordan signs her copy of ‘Treasure Island’ by Robert L. Stevenson.



King Chai is a Chevening Scholar currently pursuing an MSc. in Political Theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Contrary to popular belief, he is still mindlessly a loyal minion...

2 replies on “Free books, free books! Come get yours!”

  1. Aww…that's sad that the book shop owners had to shut down because of people preferring digital books. I myself prefer paper books. Nothing beats the smell and feel of a good book.

    Yaay for giving out free books!

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