Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Calculating kindness: 65 free books

So yesterday a woman out of the blue calls and asks if my book’s still free. She’s been out of work since 2011.

“I read the Eric Heyl story in The Tribune-Review and I was hoping you might be able to send me one,” she says. “I’m having a tough time and this sounds like it might cheer me up.”

Without me having to do even a lick of math, I get to become Santa Claus.

“I’ll be happy to,” I say. “But you have to answer one question.”


“What’s your favorite color?”

“It’s green. Thanks!”

And today a crayon-signed copy of “Use All The Crayons!” is on its way to Gail M. on Pittsburgh’s West End.

It’s a humble little gesture, but I’ve heard from others who say the book does, indeed, take some of the sting out of the tough times

Now for the math: Each book cost me about $5; each envelope about 35-cents; because I’ve been burned by cheaper media mail, I pay the premium first class $2.70 to mail each and every copy. Lavishly signing and mailing take about 20 minutes.

To me it’s a mutual bargain.

Let’s say a smiling stranger walked into The Pond and said they’d like to be my friend. I’d certainly spend at least $10.05 to make it happen. Who knows? Maybe my drunken new friend will tell someone I’m a great guy and they’ll go out and buy a book or two.

Now, let’s alter the equation.

Instead of one unemployed person, let’s make it 65 who, unlike me, are employed adults with steady incomes.

Well, the bartender’s not going to like all that sudden commotion one bit. Me, I’ll be stricken with an instant math migraine.

Let’s see, 65 people at, uh, carry the two, um, er . . . that’s in the neighborhood of $650.

And by the time I’ve dealt with every one in line, I’m drunk off my ass and my whole day is shot.

It’s a really big commitment.

But that’s the situation because after I got off the phone with Gail an esteemed literacy advocacy group requested I send them 65 free books for each of their national directors.


I have no one to blame but myself

I’m proud that mine is maybe the only book in the world that has right there on the very first page the bold-faced declaration: “This Book is Free.” The idea, it says, is that no one who might benefit from a book whose mission is to make people happy should go without over a few dollars.

Sure, there have been violations of the spirt of the thing, requests from tenured professors, lawyers and one cheap-ass photographer -- all people with jobs who can afford to buy the book -- but I won’t stoop to quibbling.

This is different. I’d read about the high-profile group and sent their offices five free crayon-signed books with a note saying I admire what they’re doing and I’d be happy to contribute.

Me and my big mouth.

What happened next was one of the most odd negotiations in which I’ve ever been engaged: I immediately began scrambling to get them to pay me something for my in-kind donation.

The retail value of that many $15.95 books -- let me check the smart phone -- is $1,036.75. Would they consider giving me a stipend?


How about a Fedex account number so I won’t have to pay shipping?


Would you mind issuing a press release saying how happy you are to have the books?


My bottom line is I’m delighted to get 65 books into the hands of people who spend their days enthusing to others about the joys of reading. It’s been my experience that good things happen when I give my books away out of the goodness of my heart.

But what if this time it doesn’t?

What if the 65 books get lost in the shuffle? What if these employed recipients simultaneously exalt that my book is just the right height to prop up their wobbly tables? What if the books just sort of disappear?

You know what I really hope happens?

I hope next week Gail M. gets a job and zooms up the organizational charts as her bosses recognize what a colorful individual she is.

I hope she ends up running the company. Then I hope she gives all the credit to “Use All The Crayons!” and splurges on 1,000 copies for her grateful employees.

Just because a man’s bad at math doesn’t mean he can’t be considered calculating. 

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