01/24/2012 06:31 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2012

The Johnny Appleseed of Books

Carl Lennertz has a new job.

As anyone who knows him would have predicted, Carl's job isn't an easy one. His immodest goal is to revolutionize the way Americans look at books.

We've known Carl since forever. At various times he has been our main point of contact at three major publishing houses. In between those gigs, he lashed himself to the mast of independent bookselling as the tireless associate director of the American Booksellers Association. He's also found time to teach at our annual Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference. On top of that, he took it upon himself to edit -- thoroughly, thoughtfully, and with an infinite amount of patience -- a novel of mine that is awaiting publication. The only way I could be any closer to him would be to marry him.

Now Carl is the executive director of World Book Night, and he's looking for 50,000 volunteers who will sign up by Feb. 1, 2012, to give away 20 books each. If he reaches his goal, there will be 1,000,000 books given out on World Book Night on April 23, 2012

World Book Night was started in the U.K. a year ago, and it was wildly successful. The idea has now spread to the U.S. and Germany, and there is every reason to think that this year's event be a roaring success.

The idea behind this celebration is to distribute books to people in non-traditional settings. The organizers want to reach people who either don't have much access to books or haven't given much thought to reading. But there's also a secondary goal, and that is to publicize books themselves. Carl and the others hope to remind people of the sheer joy of holding and reading a book -- not a virtual download of a book, but a real book with covers, pages, and binding.

Carl is providing the books. More accurately, he has arranged with a large number of American publishers to print free, special editions of thirty modern American classics. The titles include Dave Eggers' Zeitun, Khaled Husseini's The Kite Runner, Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, and 25 other acclaimed books. The authors are waiving their royalties for this project.

The books will be ready a week ahead of time for pick-up at bookstores, libraries, and hundreds of other distribution points throughout the country. Volunteers who have signed up in advance to give out these books will pick them up and then fan out on the evening of April 23 for their giving spree. Carl expects to see these merry bands of book-givers at bus stops, homeless shelters, coffee houses, retirement homes, or whether their imagination takes them. Some of the more innovative book-givers should probably expect to have media cameras tailing them around.

If you want to join in the fun and become your own Johnny-Appleseed-of-books, you have to sign up by Feb. 1. You can do that by going to the World Book Night website.

We hope to see as many of you as possible. There are bookstores around the country that are waiting to hand you your box of books and send you on your way.