Monday 7 March 2011

World Book Night: Return of the Reader

By Jo Wyton
Guest Blogger

Jo is another talented writing buddy from SCBWI. She is a geologist with a thoroughly impractical interest in rocks and an even more impractical interest in getting published. With deadlines looming, she is desperately trying to prop up the pile of unfinished manuscripts on her desk with one hand whilst trying to chase the elusive words 'The End' with the other. For some reason, she’s chosen to try doing that with two manuscripts at the same time. Eejit.
Aha, I hear you say, here we are, over here! We are at last free to crawl out from beneath our unstitched bindings and crumpled pages. We are free to shout it from the rooftops. ‘We love books!’ No e-readers for us, no sirreebob – give us something we can hold on to and let us relish the feeling of turning the page and unveiling the Next Exciting Moment!
Ahem. Well, that’s me anyway…
See: books!
In case you don’t know about World Book Night (who knows – you may have been trapped under a catastrophically unstable pile of manuscripts at the time), it was all started by Jamie Byng of Canongate Books and has been organised in only a few months (a few months!).
The idea is for a million books to be given out around the country. With authors and publishers forgoing any profits on those one million, this is a serious business.
I’ve heard that some are saying it will be bad for the book business – why buy a book when you can get one for free?
With a solemn drop of my head and a sigh I say boo to that, boo! What could be better for the book business than giving one million people a copy of a book they’ve never read before, in some cases never heard of before? Ten points and a copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to any of World Book Night’s critics who remember how that particular paperback phenomenon got going.
Anyway, (and I shall try not to use any more ‘p’ words here…) a total of a million copies of 25 titles have been selected to be given out, all dispatched by volunteers. Some have been given out at homeless shelters, some at schools and colleges, some at libraries and bookshops, and some in prisons and hospitals.
One of the giveaway titles: Sarah Waters's Fingersmith
Friday was the eve of World Book Night, and in the evening myself and around 10,000 other people crammed ourselves into Trafalgar Square for the launch event and pronounced our love for reading (complete with ruddy cheeks and icicle-blue toes).
We arrived at quarter to six, fifteen minutes before kick-off. A big stage had been set up in front of Nelson’s Column and the whole square was fenced off from the street, but for all that, Trafalgar Square was at most half-full.
Cue thoughts of ‘Oh dear, what’s gone wrong here then? Perhaps they should have advertised more? Perhaps the world just isn’t ready to stand and listen to people reading books for two hours?’
Nelson's column joining in the fun
Fifteen minutes later, as Graham Norton walked on stage, I turned around and caught my breath. I lived in London for a year and attended several events in Trafalgar Square, but I’ve never seen anything like it.
People filled every corner, and the crowd backed right up to the National Gallery and up onto it’s steps. Even the fountains had been taken over by bookworms (now there’s something I never thought I’d say).
Young, old, tall and short (the tall oh-so-inevitably standing in front of the short) were packed in, all watching the stage with a look of combined anticipation. Honestly, you’d have thought the line-up included the Beatles and the Pope, not authors.
Bookworms take over Trafalgar Square
Oh, and a few of them did turn up: Philip Pullman, Sarah Waters, Alan Bennett, Tracey Chevalier, Mark Haddon (best of the night, hands down), Margaret Atwood (all the way from Canada for the night) and John Le Carré to name a few.
There were even a few actors thrown in for some (surely exotic) reason – Rupert Everett and Stanley Tucci included – but this was the one marvellous place on earth where Alan Bennett’s protestation against the closure of local libraries was sure to raise a cheer three times louder than the appearance of a Hollywood actor on stage.
Three times louder might be an understatement: when he described closing libraries as ‘child abuse’, he raised what might be described as a fervent roar. Amazing. Also the first time I’ve heard real people use the phrase ‘here, here’!
Alan Bennett gets Trafalgar Square firmly on his side!

It was an event in London, so naturally, their stoic leader dropped in
The authors were reading excerpts from either their favourite book or from their own.
I’ve never been surrounded by so many people standing still, silent, just listening to somebody read, and it was magical.
How many other things do you know of that would make 10,000 people voluntarily stand in silence in the freezing cold? Just brilliant – an unrivalled chance for book lovers to breathe a collective sigh of relief and say, ‘You know what? Books are important, and reading is fun, and we’re happy to freeze our butts off to say so.’
God/Philip Pullman (delete as per belief system)
On stage too were eight of the ‘givers’ (they got the comfort of a sofa to sit their freezing butts on). They were asked in turn which book they’d be giving away, and who they’d be giving it to.
Some of the stories were amazing and made me wish I’d got round to applying myself. One woman, a writer, worked with a centre for victims of torture and abuse, and she would be handing them out to women there the following night.
Others, by the way, are giving them out on the tube, in prisons, in libraries and schools, and even a canal boat in Oxford.
Graham Norton ended the night with the words, ‘Let the sharing begin!’ and before we knew it, people were turning to each other and thrusting free books into their arms with whispers of, ‘Read this, it will change your life.’ I’ve even read that a homeless man on Charing Cross Road ended up with a copy of The Life of Pi.
Heroic compering from Graham Norton, not quite as
wrapped up against the cold as he'd like to be
By the end of the night, as we were standing trying to get our legs working again, I was looking around, watching people swapping books.
In front of me all night had been standing a mother with her young daughter, and next to them was an old couple literally (I’m not kidding) holding each other up by the end. Such a mixture of people all there for the same reason – and all for free.
I honestly can’t believe how fantastic it all was – officially the biggest literary event in history! Again, again, do it again!
World Book Night itself followed on Saturday, celebrated around the country in bookshops, libraries and I think just about anywhere else you can find books.
For my part, on Saturday evening I attended an event at Mostly Books, a small independent bookshop in Abingdon, South Oxfordshire.
A couple of people had brought some of their freebies along, and there was also a selection of proof copies donated by publishers.
The choosing of free books was fuelled by wine, which helps when trying to choose which of many brilliant books to pick up!
The shop was as full as I’ve ever seen it, with a great atmosphere full of people chatting about books.
Every guest was also invited/asked/forcibly made (yes, I mean you, Nicki) to fill in a small slip of paper with their favourite book and their guilty pleasure. (It was only afterwards they explained that your guilty pleasure was supposed to be a book, to which a number of people were heard to say ‘oops’.)
The board of Innermost Thoughts and Feelings pre-wine,
with bookshop owner, Mark Thornton
(ok, it was actually just for book recommendations)
World Book Night is a genius idea – giving people free books, and inviting them to free events to celebrate reading – is brilliant. Lots of people will be given a copy of a book, and they will tell friends and share their experience, and perhaps they will go out and buy another one.
But for me there’s one last thing to add – all of the books being given away for World Book Night are intended for adults. The only exceptions are Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights and Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but these are both marketed as cross-over novels – brilliant as they are, they’re definitely aimed at the older end of the children’s book spectrum.
The board of Innermost Thoughts and Feelings, post-wine
And you know what, between readings of Ulysses, Bleak House and Lucky Jim in Trafalgar Square, I longed for someone to stand up and give us some fun stuff too, you know, drop in a bit of the BFG or Artemis Fowl, Torak or Skulduggery Pleasant, give us all a break from the seriousness of life and the numbness of our toes.
As a children’s writer I’m biased, I know, but what shows the fun of reading better than a children’s book?
Because when it comes down to it, World Book Night is about sharing the reading experience and encouraging more people than ever to pick up a book.
In a time when we are closing libraries all over the country, and when schools are facing further funding cuts and bigger class sizes, shouldn’t an event like this perhaps have taken the opportunity to say to kids too, ‘You know what? Books are important, and reading is fun, and we’re happy to freeze our butts off to say so’?
Books are important, and reading is fun, and we're happy to freeze our butts off to say so!


  1. Fab post Jo! Wish I'd been there.

  2. just burnt my son's pancake - so absorbed in your post. Thrilling! Books move people!

  3. BRAVO! i wish i was there too! it looked fantastic!

  4. You obviously move in the wrong circles! I know people who say 'hear, hear' all the time.
    It's God, not Pullman. It says so on his car.
    So what's your guilty pleasure? Don't think you said.

  5. Great post, Jo. And a big cheer for Mostly Books - they are a great shop and so supportive of all kinds of community events in Abingdon. And they sell books too - what could be better?

  6. Wish I'd been there. Sounds fantastic. Up the books!

    Also in awe of Addy even attempting multi-tasking.

  7. Fantastic post, Jo! Made me wish I'd been there. And let's hear it for the Young Adult books - despite being quite an Old Adult myself, I so often find them both profound and entertaining, not something I can say about all the adult fiction I read.

  8. Just cover it in sugar Addy, he'll never notice!

    I'm very jealous Bookwitch - now i've been introduced to the cry of 'here, here' I need more. I feel bereft. I might start stalking a politician or two.

    I love Mostly Books - good old fashioned bookshop with a very modern business sense, and they seriously know what they're talking about when it comes to books, which always helps!

  9. Great post. Wish I'd been there. Keep reading and writing!

  10. Great post -sounds a fantastic night - and I have to see I think it's GREAT that the books are adult books - the more adults read for pleasure the more they'll pass it on to their kids - i think it's spreading the World Book day spirit - next year everyone should have to dress up as their guilty pleasure ;O) ( Mine is Jilly Cooper by the way...)

  11. I gave my free giver tickets to friends and got the Tshirt. I dont know yet if they were able to attend the event and got free books. Im also a giver and distributed Sarah Waters' Fingersmith. I also created groups in WBN website, Ebook Readers, WBN 2011 Givers Global Challenge, and Republic of Ireland/Northern Ireland Givers Group. Please join the Givers Global Challenge - 12 books a year! Thanks for sharing.

  12. Jo, reading this made me wish I was there. Thanks for writing it up for us armchair-readers!


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