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.

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Global Literacy – Spreading the Word

This week I became aware of two very different projects whose purpose is to spread literacy and reading to those who might otherwise be overlooked or neglected. The first of them is the brainchild of the so-called ‘bad boy of books’, Jamie Byng, second son of the 8th Earl of Stratford and managing director of Edinburgh-based publishing house Canongate. Byng rose to fame when, after joining Canongate as an unpaid volunteer, he bought the company from the receivers, before persuading the little-known author Yann Martel to let Canongate publish his novel Life of Pi. The following year it won the Man Booker prize, earning Canongate millions in the process. Further success was to follow when he bought the rights to two books by the little-known Chicago lawyer Barack Obama, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Byng’s latest idea is World Book Night – March 5th 2011 – when 20,000 members of the public chosen from applicants to the WBN website will give away 48 copies of their favourite book chosen from a list of 25 titles. Potential ‘givers’ are asked to describe how, and to whom, their books would be given, and preference will be shown to those who promise to reach the most needy. With traditional publications under threat from Kindle, iPads and ebooks generally, Byng is presumably hoping that the great giveaway will encourage people to go out and buy more books. I’ve already submitted my application.

Around the same time as I was completing my online application for World Book Night, I received an email from Ruby Veridiano of Litworld, a not-for-profit organisation which does some amazing work in  promoting literacy in some of the poorer areas of the world. For the month of  December, Litworld’s focus is on their annual Holiday Book Drive, sending books to Liberia and  Sierra Leone, where most children have never seen, far less owned, a book.

The idea is simple: people donate children’s picture books, sending or bringing them to one of three drop-off points in New York. LitWorld, in partnership with The International Book Bank, will fill a 20ft container with the books (around 3,000 are needed) and ship them to Liberia and Sierra Leone. There, the books will be put straight into the hands of children. Some of these children will never have seen a picture book before; normally, on average, one book is shared among 75 children.

Two very different projects with a common aim. Support them if you can.