March 4th, 2011
Did you hear about World Book Day—or Night? No, I didn’t really think so. With Charlie Sheen and Moammar Gadhafi (separated at birth?) hogging all the air time it’s pretty difficult to get through with anything else, let alone a story about books and reading.
Well, it’s all happening this week, even as I wrote this blog. Up to 10,000 people are expected in London’s Trafalgar Square in just a few hours to celebrate the book and the pleasure books bring. Billed as the biggest single literary event in history, World Book Night boasts an impressive line-up of authors who will be reading from their favourite works: Alan Bennett, Edna O’Brien, Philip Pullman, Sarah Waters and Margaret Atwood, to name just the headliners. I’d face the crowds around Nelson’s column to hear at least two of these, wouldn’t you? At the very least you’d take away a free book, since thousands are being given away as part of the celebration.
Certainly the ‘world’ part of World Book Day seems to be centred in the United Kingdom, since the organizers are based in London and in Ireland. The event, which has been around for a few years, hasn’t quite caught on in the rest of the globe, and I am not sure anyone in Canada or the Unites States really knows much about it. Oddly, I read about it last week while lounging on a sunny beach in the Caribbean, an ideal pace to get a lot of reading done. Leave it to the always comprehensive International Herald Tribune to provide a column about it. I have been looking for news of the event ever since returning to the much colder north, but you have to look hard, and only online, to get any details. Perhaps if tens of thousands do show up in the Square the event will be covered by some of our media outlets. After all, our literary queen, Atwood herself, is one of the featured stars.
Atwood is on record, in fact, for taking on the booksellers who have been complaining about the give-aways. Their argument is purely economical. They are in the business of selling, not donating, their product, and they resent this element of the celebration. Atwood argued back that there are plenty of booksellers involved in the give-aways, not to mention the fact that lending books is a common, civilized social practice, and when you get a book you really like you end up buying others by the same author. Anyhow, it’s a stupid and greedy complaint and won’t undermine the joy many will have in receiving a free copy of someone’s wonderful story.
The point of the whole exercise is to encourage reading, after all—literacy as a social gift we should not take for granted. I was struck by this fact in a couple of ways while down south. Everywhere I went people were reading books or electronic devices on which books were being scrolled. Perhaps one of the more surreal experiences I had was seeing half naked people walking slowly up and down the shore line of a white sandy beach, Kindle or Kobo in hand, intently focused on their little magical screens. I had never seen that before, but it was a sign of just how quickly these reading tablets have become essential beach material. What seemed surreal is quickly becoming perfectly normal. My iPad sure served me well, far lighter in my beach bag than a pile of paperbacks. I’m never leaving home without it.
I love the fact that everyone reads on the beach. It restores my faith in civilization. I also love trying to glimpse the titles of what people are reading, too. Not surprisingly, best sellers are, well, doh, the most popular choices. But I also saw a wide range of selections, some heavier and deeper than others. Speculating about people’s character from the books they are reading is an inevitable poolside pastime. Was the retired guy reading the weighty hard-bound copy of Matterhorn: A Novel of the Viet Nam War a Democrat or a Republican? The latter, I’d hunch. Was the young woman reading Theodore Dreiser’s The Financier an MBA student? Turns out she was!
But something else happened that reminded me of the importance of literacy. I had asked the hotel director to leave a teapot in my room, since I don’t drink coffee and there’s nothing like a fresh pot of tea on one’s Caribbean balcony every morning. But the cleaning staff kept removing the tea pot, and so one day I stuck a note on it, requesting that they leave it in the room. I ran into one them a few hours later. She had figured out what I had requested, but wanted to be sure. What did the note say, she asked. Obvious as it was, it didn’t even hit me until a little while later that she couldn’t read.
Yes, reading is a privilege, all right, but it should be a right. I hope World Book Day catches on.