Change the World? Give a Kid a Book

09/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

She was the town's meter maid. And yes, the Beatles had recently sung about "Lovely Rita." But this lady was not exactly lovely in her uniform. She was a plus-sized meter maid, and she was not "the most comely of maidens." All of that probably made her already unpopular job even more difficult.

But this meter maid also sang in my church choir when I was a teenager. And one day after choir practice, she handed me a book, saying simply: "I think you will like this."

I was about fourteen. And I did like to read. But I didn't really understand why the meter maid was giving me a book. It was a slim, green paperback called The Dubliners. And at the time, I am sure I had never heard of the author, James Joyce, depicted on the cover wearing a hat, overcoat and a pair of small, round black glasses.

But if you believe, as I do , that books can change people and the world, this was one of them for me.

I won't tell you that I went home that night and read the book straight through and decided to become a writer. But when I did read The Dubliners, I knew I was reading a writer unlike any I had known.

Reading Joyce's short stories at that moment was part of a literary "coming of age" that included books like The Jungle, Upton Sinclair's muckraking novel that exposed the horrors of the meat packing industry, and Johnny Got His Gun, which presented a very different view of combat than the steady diet of John Wayne epics I had grown up watching.

All of these books spoke to something very basic: the world was not as I believed it to be. This was around 1968 and the times were "a'changing." The antiwar movement was growing daily, protesters were battling police at the Democratic National Convention. And two of the people I had come to admire most -- Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy -- had been cut down by assassins' bullets.

These memories of books that changed me back then came rushing back as I learned that on August 13, 1904 -- 105 years ago today -- the 22-year old James Joyce published his first short story, "The Sisters," in an Irish agricultural magazine. The story became the first that appears in the collection, The Dubliners.

As I thought about the gift of that book, the meter maid's "deliberate act of kindness" inspired a simply perfect idea: What if we all gave somebody a book today? The recipient needn't be a child or a teenager. But that's a good place to start. And it needn't be a new book. The copy of The Dubliners I received some 40 years ago was "gently used."

Want to change the world? Maybe it's this simple. Just put a great book in someone's hands today.