World Book Night 2016/Late at the Library

“What is to me this quintessence of dust?”

William Shakespeare

So the Saturday just past, the 23rd April, was the UNESCO-designated World Book Night, as well as the birth- and deathdays of Shakespeare and Cervantes.

Now. I have Thoughts on World Book Night as it manifests itself in the UK, which I have expressed before. To cut a longish story shortish, WBN is run by the Reading Agency, and involves a large number of specially printed books (from a list of about fifteen which changes every year) being given out by a large number of volunteers, for free, to people who don’t read very much. The first year, 2011, a full million books were given out by (I think) 200,000 volunteers. This year, under 200,000 books were given out by 10,000 people.

My point being, I suppose, that it is a lovely and charitable idea; but (like many of the works of Men) it has somewhat failed of its promise.

This did not, apparently, stop me from buying a ticket to the Reading Agency’s event at the British Library on Saturday to mark the occasion, along with a slightly reluctant Circumlocutor. “It sounds like a party,” he said. “I don’t like parties.”

The event began with a panel moderated by Cathy Rentzenbrink (The Last Act of Love) featuring five past and present World Book Night authors: Dreda Say Mitchell (Geezer Girls), Holly Bourne (Am I Normal Yet?), Matt Haig (Reasons to Stay Alive), Sathnam Sanghera (The Boy With the Topknot) and Stephanie Merritt, who writes as S J Parris (Treachery).

Cathy began by asking the panellists about the role of reading in their lives. Dreda Say Mitchell talked about visiting her local library, and sneaking into the Barbican Art Gallery, and how although her family had no money they always had access to books and culture; and she read (and eventually sang) the lyrics from a Stevie Wonder song. (I have no idea which one, so please don’t ask.) Holly Bourne, in a theme common to the evening, mentioned that school English teaching made her fall out of love with reading, and that Louise Rennison and the Ace Gang made her fall back in love with it.

(As an aside: I think the assumption that Bourne and her audience made here, that all reading is intrinsically good reading and everything that stops a child reading is intrinsically bad, is worth questioning, if only because it’s a very common one that is rarely seriously examined.)

Bourne also referred to books as safe hallucinogenic drugs, and went on to make the more serious point that, while the stereotype of a reader is an introvert, drawn into themselves, her experience of reading was one of escaping out of herself. Which is an important point, about empathy, couched very subtly.

Matt Haig talked about his experience with depression, reading childhood books and rediscovering his love of story, as opposed to pretentious university novels that fuck around with time (The Sound and the Fury, I am looking at you); and he read from Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World, featuring the BFG.

Sathnam Sanghera, who wins the prize for Most Amusing Panellist, had some interesting things to say about the book as a status symbol, citing his first book purchase, The Collected Works of George Orwell, which he kept on his shelf for all to admire without ever actually reading it. (Sanghera was funny, but I also think the cultural pressures sitting behind this story are worth thinking about, especially in the context of the extremely limited diversity in the audience. It literally speaks volumes that in the heart of one of the most multicultural cities in the world I could count the POCs in the room on one hand. World Book Night is all about inclusiveness – and £20 a head to attend its flagship event is not, frankly, very inclusive.)

I can’t remember what Stephanie Merritt said, which, I’m sorry, I’m a bad blogger, but I do remember her reading from A Christmas Carol.

The next topic (oh, yes, there’s more) featured Shakespeare, the man of the night. Again, the discussion revolved around how Shakespeare is taught in schools; the consensus was “badly”, with everything from teachers laughing at unfunny jokes to introducing students to texts rather than to plays being blamed for the playwright’s infamy among schoolchildren. The idea that his plays have natural “ins” which teachers should exploit more cannily was bandied about: multicultural interpretations, “unsex me here”, Keanu Reeves. (Mmmmm.) Which is true, but also easier to say at a panel in the British Library than I imagine it is to put into practice in a noisy classroom.

There were a couple of not hugely interesting questions from the audience (mainly of the “this isn’t a question at all, just me sharing my opinion” variety, which is fine if your opinion is new and startling or even just thought-provoking) and then it was time to file over to the lobby of the Library proper, where there was indeed a Late at the Library party in full swing. (It appears that this happens on a fairly regular basis at the British Library, with a different theme each time – that’s something I’m going to keep my eye on.) The programme for the evening included music and performances of various kinds, and there was food and drink, and, let’s face it, it was a party in a library.

Ticket price included entry to the BL’s exhibition “Shakespeare in Ten Acts”, which we wandered into vaguely expecting to come out after about half an hour to eat cake and watch the performers in the excitingly lit lobby.

Which: no. “Shakespeare in Ten Acts” focuses on ten key moments in Shakespearean performance history, with displays of books and models and costumes and other shiny things, and I wanted to look at everything, which meant it took me about half an hour just to get to Act Three. (The Circumlocutor was much more sensible, and moved twice as quickly as I did, which meant he had to stop and wait for me in Act Five.) This was a pity; because by the time I had got to Act Eight, which had all sorts of interesting displays on postmodernist Shakespeare, I had had enough. It’s a well-curated and fascinating exhibition, but you do need to pace yourself.

So cake and watching performers did not, alas, happen (the Circumlocutor was disappointed to have missed the Crystals, Ben and David, who evidently do original pronunciation performances of Shakespeare) (and I’ve just realised, looking at the programme, that John Agard was there and I missed him, godsdammit) – we were kind of tired by this point, being feeble – it was still a most excellent and thought-provoking evening, with a great atmosphere. I always forget what a rich cultural resource there is in London; I’m definitely going to be looking out for more events like this.

World Book Night: Top Ten Middle Grade Novels

“Stories have a way of changing faces. They are unruly things, undisciplined, given to delinquency and the throwing of erasers. This is why we must close them up into thick, solid books, so they cannot get out and cause trouble.”

Catherynne Valente

It’s World Book Night once again! Since this event is all about getting people reading, today’s post is a Top Ten of books for middle grade readers. Happy reading, everyone.

  1. The Hobbit J.R.R. Tolkien. OK, this is just on the borderline between MG and YA, but I think it deserves to be included in the List because a) Tolkien, b) it’s practically a gateway drug for The Lord of the Rings, and c) it’s a great fairytale in its own right. Spiders and goblins and bears, oh my!
  2. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own MakingCatherynne Valente. Another book that makes it onto practically every list I’ve written ever, but there’s a reason for that. This is a really lovely little story, full of guts and adventure and darkness as well as the light. It manages to be accessible without being patronising, vocabulary-expanding without being difficult. And adults can enjoy it too.
  3. Artemis Fowl – Eoin Colfer. Another borderline novel, but also very awesome. Artemis is dastardly but also fascinating, plus the world-building is excellent and the character arcs rather lovely.
  4. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s StoneJ.K. Rowling. I know it’s an obvious choice, but there’s a reason why it’s more popular than God, and that’s because it’s good. The classic quest narrative retold as a magical boarding-school story with really well fleshed-out world-building and a swift-moving plot can only be a recipe for success.
  5. Howl’s Moving CastleDiana Wynne Jones. There seem to be a lot of fairytales in this list. I love how subversive Howl’s Moving Castle is, though: its endearingly spirited narrator Sophie finds herself empowered instead of cursed by being turned into an old woman. And Howl himself is pretty awesome.
  6. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl. It’s set in a chocolate factory. A factory where they make chocolate. Think about that for a moment. It’s funny and inventive and clever and slightly disturbing all at once. And the monsters here are real children, not bugbears or goblins, which makes it true to life without being pessimistic.
  7. Redwall – Brian Jacques. There are about a gajillion books in the series, and while they may be faintly problematic in some respects (although, I would argue, not more so than anything Tolkien wrote), they’re also pretty entertaining. Another series that’s strong on world-building, especially on the food side of things: Redwall banquets may be the best fictional banquets ever. (Food seems to be another theme of this post.)
  8. The Famous Five – Enid Blyton. Another series that seems to have gone on for ever and ever. I love the carefree way in which Our Heroes wander around the countryside of Cornwall pluckily solving mysteries that, of course, no adult has any interest in solving, all in the company of Timmy the Wonder Dog and lashings of ginger beer.
  9. The Lion, The Witch and the WardrobeC.S. Lewis. Not, in my opinion, the best of the Narnia books, but it’s the one that everyone starts with. (Personally, I prefer The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.) But Narnia as a whole is a lovely and magical creation, and I really don’t think that young readers pick up on the Christian undertones as much as we think they do.
  10. Mister Monday – Garth Nix. Another gateway drug-type book, this time for Nix’s YA Old Kingdom series. But the Keys to the Kingdom septet is good on its own merits: more clever world-building, and a hook that drags you further into the series.

What have you been reading for World Book Night?

Update: In-post linking has inexplicably begun working again. Far be it from me to look an Internet gift horse in the mouth. So I’ll be removing the Post Links menu on the right, which was only a temporary measure in any case. Hurrah!

Top Ten Books About Books

“No one who writes a good book is really dead.”

Walter Moers

In honour of World Book Night 2014 (because the idea is sound, even if the execution annoys me intensely), here are ten books about books and reading and all associated awesomeness.

  1. The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova. A family goes on a sort of literary treasure-hunt, except that the treasure is Dracula and the hunt takes place over a whole continent. LIBRARIES and VAMPIRES, people.
  2. The Crying of Lot 49– Thomas Pynchon. Really extremely paranoid, and full of ideas about the post and what happens when you read a book and other excitingly lovely things. Weird, but awesome.
  3. Special Topics in Calamity Physics –  Marisha Pessl. NOT (as I have to keep explaining to people) A PHYSICS BOOK, but another Murder Mystery-type literary hunt featuring all kinds of classic novels and a protagonist who loves to read.
  4. Inkheart – Cornelia Funke. I actually wanted to be Meggie, the bookworm protagonist of Inkheart, when I was younger. It’s a fascinating story about the power of words and of stories, for good and for bad.
  5. Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen. What happens when you read too many Gothic novels? Northanger Abbey does.
  6. The Book ThiefMarkus Zusak. Books save lives, says Zusak, and tells us how through his thieving protagonist Liesel. It’s also really sad.
  7. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury. A chillingly believable account of what happens when a society decides, collectively, not to think about anything important any more. The worst thing? It looks like it’s happening, to us, right now.
  8. Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov. Ha! An academic writes a long and digressive commentary on a friend’s poem, and reveals far too much about himself in the process. A novel about what we do when we read, and write about what we’ve read, and how sinister reading and writing can become. (Beware: may turn your brain inside out.)
  9. A Novel Bookstore – Laurence Cosse. Why doesn’t this bookshop exist? Why? Someone please make it happen!
  10. The Princess Bride – William Golding. I’m counting this one because it’s a satire on…well, something about writing, that’s for sure. Kind of like a modern Don Quixote with snappier quotes.

The Thirty Day Book Challenge: Day Twenty-Five

“Ah, you are stubborn yet.”

Stephen Donaldson

Firstly, an L-space rant. Yesterday was, as well as the Doctor Who 50th anniversary (SQUEE!), also the day upon which the World Book Night book list was announced.

And…it’s a little disappointing.

This year, the books I have read on the list are Robert Muchamore’s The Recruit, which, while rather good, is a piece of YA and therefore not a work I would relish handing to actual adult strangers on the street, and Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London, which is not really very good.

True, there’s also Agatha Christie and Roald Dahl’s short stories and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, but I can’t help thinking: where are all the classics? All the books we know and love? The first WBN featured books by Margaret Atwood and Dickens and Cloud Atlas and POETRY. Not just good books, but great books.

All of 2014’s books, on the other hand, look decidedly average.

WBN says that these books are chosen because they are “easy to read and accessible”. And I’m sorry, but this feels a lot like condescension. I believe that reading a truly great book – a book like Cloud Atlas or Life of Pi, neither of which, I might point out, are exactly dense – is much more likely to encourage new readers than an averagely good crime novel like the ones on the new list.

Oh, and the most infuriating thing from WBN: “We constructed this year’s list to encourage more men – who we know are more likely to read books by men – to take part in WBN.”


Just put more books by men on the list, because that will make everything better? Because it’s somehow all right that men only read books by men? Just WHAT?


Day Twenty-Five: A Character Who You Can Relate To The Most

Urgh. The grammar of some of these questions is terrible.

As a matter of fact, I think Thomas Covenant, the titular character of Stephen Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, is remarkably relatable, because his responses to the world into which he is suddenly thrust are so believable, and because those responses are so often framed as psychological struggles. Certainly I think he is more relatable, because in many ways more human, in the Second Chronicles; I’ve found myself thinking of him a lot since I read that book. We may not be able to relate to his specific circumstances – his leprosy, or his Being a Writer – but in Thomas Covenant there is something that everyone can relate to: the fear of failure, of letting others down, of losing control. And who said fantasy wasn’t about real life?

The Thirty Day Book Challenge: Day Seven

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that when one part of your life starts going okay, another falls spectacularly to pieces.”

Helen Fielding

Before resuming normal service, I’d like to say something about the changes to World Book Night 2014.

If you don’t know (and why don’t you?), World Book Night is – or was – a terrific initiative begun in 2011. On the 23rd April 2011, one million free books were given out across the country by twenty thousand volunteers, ordinary members of the public. Each book had an individual code; the idea was that their passage across the world could be tracked as they were handed on after each reader.

Sounds like a terrific idea, right? Right. It was.

And then…things started happening. In 2012, WBN’s focus moved to non-regular readers. You were only selected to be a giver if you pledged to hand books to people who don’t read very much. Fair enough, except that if you give a book to a friend who doesn’t read, you know what will happen? They won’t read it. Still. Non-regular readers. Fine.

Skip to 2013. The focus is now more or less exclusively on non-regular readers, which is, you know, sad, because WBN always felt like it should be for everyone, no matter how much or how little they read. The tracking code is also removed from the books, and the book discussion aspect of the website essentially disappears. The number of books handed out overall is also halved.

And now. The policy for 2014 has just been announced, and it annoys me for reasons that are hard to explain. I’ll try, though. Firstly, to be a giver, “you must be able to clearly demonstrate how you’ll reach those who don’t regularly read.” a) How is this going to work? Is there going to be a WBN assessor following applicants around to check that they meet this requirement? b) The way this is phrased is really not very friendly, and would certainly put me off applying if I was visiting for the first time. Ditto “any applications to give books to regular readers will be rejected”.

Also, there is no public vote, this year, over which books people would like to be considered for WBN.

Small things, really, but what it adds up to is exclusion. WBN, originally a wonderful thing meant to complement World Book Day, the reading celebration for children – all children – has now, seemingly, become what amounts to a niche charity event for non-readers instead of a nationwide celebration of books and reading for everyone, an organisation controlled from the top down, from within, as opposed to a free and frank discussion point about books – which books we think worthy of remembering.

I’d just like to say that I have no objection to giving out books to non-regular readers. Of course more people should read. The world would be incomparably better if everyone read regularly. It’s just that WBN’s policy recently has seemed to aim towards excluding the entire reading community, which is a shame because it is generally a very good idea to get readers on your side, and because it is, after all, meant to be World Book Night.

In summary: I am afraid – terribly afraid – that WBN has failed to live up to its enormous and once-wonderful promise.

Day Seven: A Book That Makes You Laugh

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, by Helen Fielding. Literally. Bridget is just so recognisable: we all do stupid things, as she does, from time to time. And her narrative voice is compelling – like a disaster constantly waiting to happen. I’m quite looking forward to the new book, Mad About the Boy, too. Just as a cheery corollary to the depressing WBN stuff.

Thoughts from World Book Night

“Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you.”

Carlos Ruiz Zafon

As you may know, today is World Book Night, as well as possibly Shakespeare’s birthday and St. George’s Day in England. And this morning, as part of a nationwide giving-away of half a million books (which is also happening in America and Germany) I gave away 20 copies of Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency to random members of the public. Well, actually, I gave 16 copies away to random members of the public, and four to people I already knew.

So, anyway, the public seemed to take remarkably well to being handed free books: my 16 copies were gone in less than half an hour, and at one point I even had a queue. (Of three people, but still.) More than one person came back when they realised they’d heard the words “World Book Night”, meaning that I was not just a random crazy person (an easy mistake to make, I’m sure)but part of an actual official event, and quite a few people were encouraged by the word “free”. Which just goes to show what a good idea World Book Night actually is: if you don’t read much, you’re not likely to go out and buy a book, but getting one for free implies no kind of commitment to finish it or enjoy it, and who knows, you might stumble across something you like.

The moral of the story: World Book Night is a Good Thing for everyone: I got a chance to evangelise about a book that I like very much, and the public got something good to read for free. I don’t know if WBN can singlehandedly save books from oblivion, from the internet and films and television and kindles, but I think it might help. So happy World Book Night, everyone, and go and get lost in a book.

The Shadow of the Wind

“Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.”

Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Shadow of the Wind is the second book to come from my Easter Restocking of the TBR Pile (actually a Shelf now I’m back at university). I picked up the sequel, The Prisoner of Heaven, and read about this first book on the blurb, and it sounded amazing. And so here we are.

In a post-war Barcelona, Daniel Sempere is taken to the labyrinthine Cemetery of Forgotten Books (I know, right? That name on its own would have been enough to make me read it) where he picks out a rare book entitled The Shadow of the Wind, by Julian Carax. But there is someone hunting every copy of this book down, stopping at nothing to burn all traces of Julian Carax’s exitence for ever.

That was a very melodramatic description, I know, but The Shadow of the Wind is a very melodramatic book. It has everything from madness to incest, passing through forbidden love, violence and corruption on the way. It is, in short, a novel that Wilkie Collins would be proud of, and in fact I’m sure that anyone who liked The Woman in White will love this novel.

Sadly, however, I was not a massive fan of The Woman in White, and therefore I was less than overwhelmed by The Shadow of the Wind. It started off well, with that wonderful passage about books that is my Quote for the Day. But it was less about books than I had expected it to be, and more about the people behind the books: Lain Coubert, the devil, who bears a strong resemblance to V from V for Vendetta, and a very Javert-y police inspector named Fumero, who says things like “We’ll meet again,” at which point the Les Mis Voice in my head (because everyone has one of those) starts singing:

You’ve hungered for this all your life.

Take your revenge; how right you should kill with a knife.

I’m not entirely sure why I started to lose interest about halfway through, but I did. The writing is quite lovely, lyrical and sad and somehow sepia-tinted, although occasionally the dialogue is stilted and over-formal (I don’t know if this is a lost-in-translation thing or a genuine failing). It’s also quite slow-moving, although I don’t usually find that a problem. It just wasn’t quite what I was expecting, I suppose, and that spoiled it for me.

On a happier note, tomorrow (the 23rd April) is World Book Night (as well as Shakespeare’s possible birthday). I will be handing out 20 copies of Alexander McCall Smith’s The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency to unsuspecting members of the public – how will you celebrate?

World Book Night

“I cannot live without books.”

Thomas Jefferson

What am I going to write about today?

I’m a bit stuck, here. I haven’t watched anything worthwhile, I haven’t finished any books recently, I haven’t listened to any new music, and writing about the extremely obscure animated series Soul Music for the third time in a week would probably try even your patience, Constant Reader. Basically, my life is extremely boring at the moment.


Snow? Nope, can’t get a hundred words out of snow. My cats? Probably wouldn’t interest you. The decline of society? Well, where do I start?

I know! World Book Night! That’s interesting, right? And vaguely literary too, so we’re off to a good start.

So. World Book Night is a brilliant concept dreamed up by the publisher Jamie Byng a couple of years ago. Basically, every year on the 23rd April a million books are given away free by members of the public.

It’s that simple. Something like 20,000 people give away 20 copies of a book that they’ve chosen from a list of, er, 20 (see a pattern here?), preferably a book that they’ve read and loved or at least liked very much. Now, a couple of seconds with a calculator will tell you that 20 × 20,000 is not a million. The remaining 600,000 books are given away to “the hardest to reach potential readers in prisons, care homes, hospitals, sheltered, supported and social housing, the homeless and through partner charities working throughout the UK”, according to the website in a somewhat less than crystal clear sentence.

The first year, 2011, I got a World Book Night copy of Margaret Atwood’s Blind Assassin. Which, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t enjoy all that much, but you can’t have everything. Last time (earlier this year) one of my all-time favourite books, Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, was on the list, but to my annoyance I wasn’t in England on the date. So this time, I’ve finally done it: I’ve Applied To Be A Giver for 2013. And I’m (hopefully) going to give away copies of The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. Which isn’t the best book ever, but it’s my favourite one from the list that I’ve actually read. Plus it’s the first of a massive series, so it’s a good one to Get People Reading, which is the whole point of World Book Night.

I’m not entirely sure what the point of this post is though. Er…World Book Night is a Good Thing? Yes. One million free books are not to be sneezed at.