World Book Night

I love books, and I love giving them away. Which is why I signed up early to volunteer as a ‘giver’ on yesterday’s World Book Night and how I ended up spending six hours tramping around the streets, cafes and pubs of my home town of Ayr giving away 48 copies of Life of Pi to complete strangers. The brainchild of Jamie Byng, MD of Canongate publishers and a controversial figure within and without the publishing world, the idea was that 20,000 volunteers across the UK and Ireland would each give away four dozen copies of a book, chosen from a pre-selected list of 25 titles, with a further 40,000 copies distributed to ‘difficult to reach’ places such as prisons and hospitals, making a grand total of 1 million books. Supported by television and with extensive coverage in the media generally, the overall aim of the event was to spread the word about reading and to set a million books on a ‘journey’ which can be tracked back to the original giver. Each book has been allocated a unique ten-digit number and the receiver is encouraged to register the number on the WBN website where he or she will subsequently be able to comment on the book before passing it on to someone else. The organisers put it like this:-

“At the heart of all reading lies a journey, a mental journey into the unknown that has the power to alter the passenger in the course of the travelling. The journey is indeed the destination and World Book Night seeks to celebrate the many journeys that books allow people to go on.”

Life of Pi

Despite having the approval of the Publishers’ Association, the Booksellers’ Association and the Independent Publishers’ Guild among others, the scheme has not been without its critics, not least those who say that it will only serve to make it more difficult for new authors to find an audience, or that it will result in people failing to understand the real cost of books. Some have suggested alternative projects, like author and blogger Nicola Morgan, who encouraged readers to buy a book from their local bookshop and write the inscription ‘Given in the spirit of World Book Night, March 5th 2011 and bought from [insert name of shop] – please enjoy and tell people about it’, before passing it on to a friend. A great idea, and something which I’m sure many readers, myself included, already do on a regular basis. If you’re passionate about books, it’s difficult not to want to share that passion with others.

As for my own experience on World Book Night, it made me have a fresh look at my home town, gave me an excuse to have some lengthy conversations with complete strangers, and left me with a great feeling of satisfaction to see the obvious pleasure the gift of a book can still bring to people in a sometimes chaotic world.

I would like to thank the owners and managers of Cafe Nero, Su Casa, Cafe Francais, Beanscene and Billy Bridge’s Bar in Ayr for allowing me to harass their customers during their busiest day of the week, especially in the case of the latter as my visit coincided with the television broadcast of the 3.30 from Doncaster.

12 thoughts on “World Book Night

  1. Dear Bill,

    I’m glad to hear you had a great experience in Ayr. And that you were giving out Life of Pi, a book I’m close to for obvious reasons.

    “This book was born when I was hungry”!!!

    It’s been an exhausting but exhilarating weekend.
    And one of the highlights was spending 3 hours walking around west London giving people copies of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Fantastic reactions that really made me feel that the critics of this initiative were simply wrong in their assumptions and fears. I do sympathise with independent booksellers in particular because the times are unquestionably tough. Tougher than they have ever been. But to ignore the possibilities of world book night and to fail to understand that something that promotes reading in such a high profile and wide-reaching way will be good for our entire industry, seems like a failure to appreciate what it is that actually sells books. And that is readers.

    As for this idea of devaluing books…..well if you think the only value of something is what you can charge for it, then you are really small-minded and stupid!!! And shouldn’t be a bookseller. And should perhaps read Lewis Hyde’s The Gift.

    On a non World Book Night theme – what a result for Liverpool this afternoon. King Kenny and King Kuyt!

    And finally – if I wanted to send you a book tomorrow what would be the best address.



  2. Thank YOU Jamie for an amazing idea and for working so hard to make it happen. It’s a bit of a cliche that it’s better to give than to receive but in this case it was absolutely true. If I could repeat the experience every week I would.
    As someone with a bit of a soft spot for Man U I can’t entirely agree with you on the Liverpool result but since you’ve had such a hard time of it recently I wouldn’t deny you the pleasure of an amazing result and an incredible turnaround from Kenny D! I’m thrilled that you’ve taken the time to comment and thanks also for your generous offer. I’ll email you my home address.



  3. Pingback: World Book Night « Bill Boyd – The Literacy Adviser | World Media Information

  4. Hi Bill, Jamie and all book givers and book lovers –
    WBN was a brilliant idea: I signed up as soon as I heard about it and was fortunate to be chosen as one of the 20,000 book givers. There were four of us in Stornoway, so three of us got together to give away most of our books (‘Case Histories’ by Kate Atkinson, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque and ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ by Muriel Spark) at 10.30am yesterday inside and in front of the town library. Reactions from people we thrust books at were mixed but mainly surprise at being given something for free and delight that it was the gift of a book – “These cost a fortune normally, don’t they?” was one comment. The books themselves were beautiful – really attractively designed. Unfortunately I didn’t inscribe all of my books with the unique identifying number but I really wish I had. We’re giving the remainder away in school tomorrow to raise awareness of our school library which is under threat of being closed. We’re combining it with lots of other reading awareness activities – a book fair all week, readathon, literature quizzes, reading aloud day on Tuesday, etc, etc, etc. A great way to start the week.
    I’m already looking forward to next year’s WBN and would encourage everyone else to get involved. One elderly gentleman who accepted a copy of ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ was quite emotional about the gift of this particular book and said he looked forward to re-reading it. I’m looking forward to seeing all the feedback from recipients of WBN books as they log in to register their books online…
    Cheers, Bill – your blog is always so inspirational!

  5. Liz,
    What an inspirational story, and one which I would guess epitomises World Book Night.Thanks for your generous comment too about the blog. I try to write and reflect on as many of the issues pertaining to literacy and education in the modern world as I can but a common thread is the importance of writing, books and literature to how we define ourselves as individuals and as a nation.


  6. Pingback: On Giving Books Away | Take One Step Back

  7. Hi Bill,

    great blog and fantastic to have Jamie comment on it! 🙂

    I absolutely loved being a part of WBN. I worked in my local libraries for a number of years and always took great joy at having a great forum to express my opinions on books and help borrowers to find books that suited them. And now, WBN – what better way to really promote a book than to be able to offer a free copy alongside your positive comments on it? I gave away ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ to the good people of Stornoway and, as Liz already said, there were quite a lot of people who were delighted, although at times a little suspicious, about getting a book for free!

    Wonderful copies, interesting introduction included in the Spark copies, and if the whole point of it wasn’t to send these books on great journeys, they’d make a beautiful set to collect! Thanks to Jamie et al for the opportunity to do this, really looking forward to signing up again next year!


  8. Hi Kate,
    Thanks for taking the trouble to comment. I’m sure that your positive experience was enacted the length and breadth of the country last Saturday. What I particularly liked about it was that, while I often give away books to faily and friends, giving them to total strangers was something totally different. As you say, many of them were suspicious at first (what does that tell us about civil society!) but when they realised you weren’t selling them anything most people were happy to engage in a conversation about their favourite books. Like you, I’ll be signing up for next year!


  9. Hi Bill,

    I totally agree with what you are saying about giving away books to strangers – the closest we got to doing this through the libraries was by using a Book of the Month display which was also great. If it was a book I felt strongly about, sometimes the library members would take a copy because I was genuinely excited and enthusiastic about it – others would take it to shut me up, which is also fine. The brilliant thing is that, love the books or hate them, that’ll get people talking about the literature. It was lovely to see some people accepting the books and saying that they weren’t too sure whether they would like it, but they’d pass it on to their husband or friend. I hope that the recipients make use of the online facility so that the titles can be tracked. And what a great way to communicate with new people.

    See you on Saturday!

  10. Hi Bill

    WBN was a great idea and I spent a number of happy hours (sic) in my local The White Hart, Portchester asking every newcomer if they would like a copy of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”. Very quickly had handed out all 48 copies. Since returneing I have very good feedback from those who have read or re-read this wonderful story. Some copies already on there second/third pass on after only a week.
    Best regards


  11. Fantastic story Wally, and one which captures the spirit (no pun intended) of World Book Night. I think a pub is an excellent place to give away your books because that way the book can generate plenty of discussion, and as you obviously discovered, can easily be sent on the next stage of its journey! I’m sure, like me, you’ll be desperate to repeat the experience next time.

    best wishes,

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