Now don’t misunderstand me. Any event that seeks to celebrate books and encourage people to read is prima facie A Good Thing. But there are ways of doing it and ways of doing it. World Book Night – a national (rather than global, but never mind) giveaway of one million books – is going to be a highly visible and heavily publicised occasion. Launched on December 2nd on BBC2’s Culture Show and covered on March 5th next year also on the BBC, it enjoys the endorsement of a staggering range of celebrities, including writers, actors, artists and pop stars. It is already starting to look as morally unquestionable as Live Aid.
But it’s actually quite hard to find anything in the press information that defines the precise aims of WBN. Much warm-hearted talk is offered, about notions of excitement, passion, personal recommendation and the celebration of reading, but if you consider how it’s going to work you might suspect, like me, that it’s nebulous at best and reductive at worst. For one thing, the 20,000 volunteers who will each give away to friends, colleagues, relatives and others, 48 copies of their favourite book are obliged to choose their favourite book from a list of just 25, chosen as ‘accessible works of enduring quality’ by a panel of judges.
From the outset, then, the whole exercise is massively restricted. 20,000 people and just 25 books? If it’s a genuine exercise in generous personal recommendation, why not allow the volunteers to choose their own favourites? That would be a real celebration and something that could bring much wider benefits to the world of books. Presumably this is considered to be out of the question logistically and financially. Instead we have the slightly absurd phenomenon of special editions of the lucky 25 being designed and produced and of course paid for when there are plenty of copies of these and other books readily available for donation. If publishers are serious about their involvement why can’t they simply offer to donate any book requested rather than take part in a transparent exercise in WBN branding at the expense of eclecticism and the unexpected? Or at the very least, poll the 20,000 and draw up a list from the results – it’s their recommendations we’re talking about, after all. But everything comes down to economics, which is where the laudable ideals and fine talk come unstuck.
It’s a great shame, because I think the individual choices of 20,000 readers would be infinitely more interesting and might even teach publishers a thing or two about what readers actually want. But no, instead what we have is a short list of the usual suspects, from Le Carre to Atwood, Bennett to Spark, Haddon to Mitchell, etc. To my mind the truth of it is that a self-appointed (albeit well-read and well-meaning) elite has been invited to impose an impossibly narrow framework on an event which purports to be – and could be - about the celebration of all books. Imagine the scope of 20,000 readers’ personal favourites. Think how provocative, surprising, challenging and enlightening that would be.
The 25 books on the list are hugely well-known best-sellers. They don’t need the publicity. And yet it seems to me that publicity for these books is the only likely result. World Book Night risks turning into a glorified book club with short-term benefit for a tiny group of authors who have no need of a helping hand. I have no doubt that the organisers, panel members and celebrity supporters have nothing but the best of motives but I’m afraid to at least this one observer it looks like a colossal missed opportunity.