Marc Marano looked both ways before jogging across Main Street in Southampton with his goldendoddle, Stella.
Had he glanced straight ahead, he would have seen Karli Kittine waiting for him on the other side.
“Can I see your dog?” she shouted across to the pair as they were halfway through the crosswalk.
“Sure! She just got a haircut,” Mr. Marano yelled back with a smile.
The Southampton resident, Stella and Ms. Kittine, who resides in Hampton Bays, all ducked under a tree to escape a persistent mist in Monday afternoon’s 53-degree air that threatened to turn into a steady drizzle.
“Oh, she looks beautiful,” Ms. Kittine cooed to Stella, and segued to her owner with, “Also, can I talk to you about something?”
Mr. Marano laughed, slightly startled by her directness, and hesitantly replied, “Sure.”
“Do you read?”
“I can,” he said. “Sure, I can read!”
Stella yanked at her leash, pulling Mr. Marano toward a nearby tree she found enticing. Ms. Kittine followed them, picking up her box that initially held 20 copies of the nonfiction book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”
She explained that she was a volunteer for World Book Night USA, an inaugural campaign comprised of 25,000 volunteers nationwide who were giving out half a million books to non-avid readers in one day.
The hope was to spark an interest and passion in those who wouldn’t normally pick up a book for entertainment, she said, and to then pass it on to someone else.
“Interesting,” Mr. Marano mused. “Well, what’s it about?”
The nonfiction book—one of 30 distributed titles chosen by World Book Night—follows Henrietta Lacks, also known to scientists as HeLa. She was a poor tobacco farmer whose aggressive cancer cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine. Her cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she’s virtually unknown.
Meanwhile, Henrietta’s family has continued to live in poverty, and frequently poor health. Decades later, they have discovered her contribution—a revelation that is a central conflict in the story.
“So, she’s a real person?” Mr. Marano asked.
“She’s a real person,” Ms. Kittine replied. “I never read nonfiction before this book. It was engrossing.”
“Cool! I’ll give it a shot,” Mr. Marano said, eagerly reaching for a copy.
With that, Stella beelined toward an approaching Parson Russell Terrier, Perkin, being walked by his owner, Kristina Lewis. While the dogs played, Ms. Kittine made her next giveaway approach—and succeeded.
“I’m just about to leave for Asia,” the Water Mill resident said, taking a book from Ms. Kittine. “I’ll read it and pass it along to someone in Asia.”
The time was 12:46 p.m. Ms. Kittine had started her volunteer “job” almost 40 minutes earlier, and her box of 20 books to hand out was now down to seven.
She peeked at the remaining copies and wondered aloud about how her thousands of counterparts were holding up—not only in the United States, but also in Ireland, England and Germany.
World Book Night launched in Ireland and England last year, Carl Lennertz, the USA executive director, explained during a telephone interview last week from Manhattan. Book publishers, printers, bookstores, libraries and shippers funded the $1 million, nonprofit operation.
“This is grassroots,” Mr. Lennertz said. “This is not top-down from New York. I’m a corporate sales marketing guy. When UK World Book Night came to me, said they wanted to do it here and asked, ‘Will you do it?’ I thought for about five seconds.”
The former vice president of retail and marketing at HarperCollins Publishing, who left the publisher and began World Book Night USA last Labor Day, said that he loved working on books. He loved the people. He especially loved his old paycheck, he said. But he was ready to do something else, to spread around a love of reading.
“It was, ‘When can I start?’ It just felt so right,” he said of his decision to start World Book Night USA. “It’s my last hoorah. It just felt like such a good campaign.”
Mr. Lennertz runs the US event with honorary chairperson, author and journalist Anna Quindlen, as well as 25,000 volunteers in all 50 states.
“It hit me last night after my second glass of wine,” Mr. Lennertz, who grew up in Southold, laughed. “I cannot think of anything besides food that you can hand to either a friend or a stranger and have it be mostly welcome. You can do that with books, too. Book people—book readers—love to talk about books. This is a chance to talk to others.”