One million books

The gift of literacy is quite unlike any other – something that is sadly not as widespread as one would hope, nor is it always made the most of by those who possess it. The night of 5 March 2011 will be a date which could not only help change that, but which also marks the beginning of what could be a great event for many years to come: World Book Night.

1,000,000 free books will be distributed by the public in total, with the backing of a mix of publishers and patrons such as Stephen Fry, Nigella Lawson and J.K. Rowling. Although perhaps not the most chronologically comprehensive, the 25 titles which have been selected for publication are nevertheless enjoyable and contemporary. Despite staying relatively safe, the selection does demonstrate a variety of genre and style, so everyone who wants to read can find something to appeal to their tastes. Including names like Alan Bennett, Carol Ann Duffy, and Margaret Atwood, as well as some lesser-known authors like Rohinton Mistry and Yann Martel, the books on the list will be distributed to 800 members of the public who will in turn give out 48 copies of the title they would most recommend.

The aim of this venture is to positively impact literary consumption and “celebrate reading, writing and sharing”, as one of the patrons, sculptor Anthony Gormley, states. Yet the motivations underpinning this altruistic endeavor have already come into question: from asking how one can even know 48 people who would read the same book, to downright accusing the publishers of seeing this as a long-term investment plan.

BBC’s arts editor Will Gompertz, in a blog post from earlier this month, stated, “the objective is clearly to increase the market of those who buy and read books”. He drew attention to how this will enlarge the fan base of these particular authors who – if alive and still writing (as many on the list are) – will make big money for the publishers who have the copyrights. Of course, when something with a retail value of £8,390,000 is given away for free, even the least discerning person will wonder about the possible ulterior motives. To be fair, it is indeed possible that the thought would have dawned on the publishers. A night’s loss in profits followed by a steady increase that could last for years? Sounds like a smart move for the ones financially secure enough to take the hit. In one way or another, as Gompertz laconically adds, “it is a promotion”.

Is all this talk about profit, loss, and market value even helpful in this context though? Although it is of course always a positive thing for the media to try to delve for ulterior motives and pick at any loose ends, the opinion on this seems to be uncomfortably polar. On the one hand, you have Margaret Atwood and the chairman of World Book Night, Jamie Byng, going on about “the special power of recommendation” and these books as “treasures widening the gift circle”. On the other, you have percentages and huge numbers thrown around cynically to point out the cold hard facts behind this venture.

The thing is, there are cold hard facts behind practically any venture – what is disappointing is the assumption that a venture surely cannot have positive effects if calculations have been made and estimations have been drawn. The whole argument about whether selfless giving stems from the selfish need for feeling good about giving tends to crop up. Sight of the real benefits, regardless of motive, get lost.

These books are accessible yet substantial reads, and because of this combination, they may do even more than provide books where books are scarce. It is not hard to spread a love of reading to those who want it but don’t have the means to acquire it; it only takes money and generosity. What is hard, and what this World Book Night scheme could positively affect, is getting people out of their reading habits by adopting reading – widely and insatiably – as the habit itself.

The larger variety of authors, styles, voices, and genres, which this event will provide to millions, seems quite underrated. If all of your friends are reading glossy young adult novels, what are the chances someone will press Toni Morrison’s Beloved into your hand? If your family thinks the only reading worthwhile are medical textbooks, what are the chances you’ll ever find out if you’d enjoy Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights? It doesn’t matter if you don’t know 48 people who would be equally pleased to receive the same book on World Book Night. Some may be ecstatic, some may first let it gather dust in a corner of their room; but they will eventually pick it up to see what it is that they’ve been using as a door-stop for months.

There’s no denying, really, that either way this event could be very helpful in not only spreading reading but diversifying literary taste, which is more often the factor that discourages tentative readers than many realise. If this event will get books to those who want them but either can’t or won’t get them themselves, then any profit these publishers may eventually make off World Book Night are surely well-earned.

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