Fear not, if approached by a fervent-eyed reader brandishing a bundle of books in your general direction. It's World Book Night, and 1 million books are set to be given away in the UK by 20,000 book lovers to mark the occasion on Monday 23 April.
Volunteers range from Stephen Fry, who will be handing out Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities on the set of an adaptation of an Ian Rankin novel in Edinburgh, to Alexander McCall Smith, giving away Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day to his local community, and culture secretary Ed Vaizey, who plumped for David Peace's novel about Brian Clough, The Damned Utd. Forty thousand copies of the 25 books chosen for the occasion will be given away around the UK in an attempt to inspire a love of books in reluctant readers.
As well as the book giveaways, hundreds of readings and author events are taking place around the country in libraries, theatres, bookshops and arts centres, with participants including the authors Marina Lewycka, Patrick Gale and Maggie O'Farrell. The day – which also marks Shakespeare's birthday and Unesco International Day of the Book – will culminate with a major event at the Southbank Centre in London, where authors including Iain Banks, Andrea Levy, David Nicholls and Mark Haddon will read from their work, with a live stream appearance from Neil Gaiman in America and a video message from Margaret Atwood.
Gaiman's novel Good Omens, written jointly with Terry Pratchett, is one of the titles being distributed freely and the author said via email that he was "delighted" to have been chosen for the giveaway. "I was more thrilled than you would believe to have had four and a half books make it into the lead on the World Book Night voting site last year, and was delighted that the half a book was picked (because readers get to meet me and Terry Pratchett for the price of one. Well, not-the-price of anything. Oh, you know what I mean)," he wrote. "Thrilled because it means that people who like books are going to proselytise; pleased because the greatest book-recommending engine ever created, Word Of Mouth, is going to be deployed. Thrilled because people will read my words who might never have encountered them otherwise. Possibly they might make people laugh. Or think. Or just enjoy the story."
Atwood agreed. "Books without readers are like musical scores without players. And unless people are introduced to the joys of reading, reading books will disappear. World Book Night allows passionate readers to share the books they adore. And it's a gift … gifts make powerful statements," she said.
Although there was some controversy last year around World Book Night, with some bookshops questioning the wisdom of flooding the market with free books, Gaiman said that "anything that gets people reading, anything that gets people back into the habit of reading, anything that reminds people how much pleasure they can take in a book is a good thing".
"I don't see this as millions of lost sales for bookshops; I see it as, potentially and with luck, hundreds of thousands more customers for bookshops," he said. Atwood added that last year's event "increased the sum total of books read and also books sold – at least for those bookstores that participated".
This year – the UK's second World Book Night – events will also be running in Germany, the US and Ireland, with 2.5m books to be distributed for free in total. "We always hoped that World Book Night would become a global initiative that truly lived up to its name," said founder Jamie Byng, who is giving copies of The Damned Utd to inmates at HMP Wormwood Scrubs in London. "The number of givers signed up and the sheer volume of books being given away across the Germany, the USA, the UK and Ireland is truly astounding and the prospect of so many great books being read and shared all over the world on 23 April is very exciting."
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