Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Book Giver: World Book Night 2012

A few months ago, in a fit of random gung-ho enthusiasm, I signed up to be part of World Book Night 2012. It's a fairly new scheme (2012 is its second year) that aims to get more people reading by asking 20,000 givers to hand out 1,000,000 copies of 25 specially chosen and printed books (that works out as 24 books each - I assume they chose this number because trying to carry around any more would make your arms drop off).

This is a truly worthy and well-meaning scheme which, as you may be able to see, has extreme potential to go horribly wrong. Your average well-educated, internet-savvy book nut will tend to hang out with people who are also well-educated, internet-savvy book nuts, and who can probably afford to buy their own copies of All Quiet on the Western Front (one of last year's 25, and a very weird choice to my mind) without help from a free-book programme. This was demonstrated very clearly to me last year: I worked at an Oxford bookstore which was one of the pick-up points for givers, and most of the (posh, white) people who came in seemed to be treating World Book Night as a cheap way to get presents for their (posh, white) friends.

I think, though, that the people running the scheme have tightened up the concept second time around. Not only are the books on offer this time around much easier and more inviting reads (while still containing some damn good choices, like Good Omens, The Time Traveller's Wife and Room), but when you sign up you're asked to say what you're actually going to do with your allocated copies. Last year I didn't sign up because I knew I would just end up giving them away to my (bookish, if mostly not posh or white) friends, which I think would be CHEATING (I'm still mad about those lazy givers).

This year, though, I'm living in London, where public transport is great, literacy rates are badly low and where, when you try to hand out things to random passers-by, only some of them look at you like you've just asked them to get into your handy murder van. Also (and what tipped the scales for me) one of the titles on offer this year was Dodie '101 Dalmatians' Smith's I Capture The Castle. This is a book I've been crazy about ever since I first read it twelve years ago. The totally weird tale of the romantic misadventures of a teenage girl who lives in a castle because her father is mad, it's utterly brilliant and totally readable, and I would actually give my left kidney to have written it myself. I would then give my right kidney to know what happens after it finishes, and my liver to make Cassandra real so I could be friends with her. That is how much I love it. If I could make the entire world sit down and read I Capture The Castle I would, so the thought of being able to give away 24 copies of it was pleasing to me.

And that is the story of how I became a World Book Night 2012 giver.

When the time came, I dutifully collected my books from the appointed library (suitcase in tow - from bitter prior experience I know that 24 copies of a large text adds up to A Whole Lot Of Book), came home, wrote my name and their unique tracking number in each copy - and then was suddenly faced with a towering pile of novels in the middle of my floor. It was terrifying. I started having feverish daydreams about what would happen if (or when) I failed to find anyone who wanted them. I was going to have to to spend the rest of my life living with an impromptu altar to Dodie Smith, constantly being shamed by the visual reminder of my inability to interact with other humans. My housemates were going to hate me. Worse, I was going to hate me! It was all made worse by the fact that I was going to be out of London on World Book Night itself, the 23rd. What if people stopped reading books before I could do my handout on the 24th?

As astute readers may be able to guess, none of these things actually came to pass. This morning I woke up, had breakfast, loaded my 24 copies of I Capture the Castle into two large bags and set out on my mission of literary mercy.

Free to a good home?
My plan of action involved getting on the tube at Elephant and Castle station, the very bottom of the Bakerloo line, and loading up the trains going north. I went dodging in and out of carriages at each station stop, trying to feel like a good fairy and not like a terrorist (it turns out that do not leave any items unattended is really strongly ingrained in my psyche), and also trying not to feel too guilty about abandoning lovely books to an uncertain fate. Good cause notwithstanding, it is hard to do a drive-by dump of a book when you have spent your life trying to collect as many of them as possible. But I did it, and if you or anyone you know found a copy of I Capture the Castle on the Bakerloo line with a post-it saying READ ME!, I would like to hear from you, preferably with accompanying pictures of it on your bookshelf. It would soothe my soul.

After that ordeal, I got off the tube at Charing Cross and went walking down the Strand, handing out copies to people who looked friendly. I got a few people who'd heard of I Capture the Castle before, and one very nice girl who was extremely excited about both it and World Book Night, but most of them hadn't, and each of those people made me realise what a good thing World Book Night can be. I gave away a copy to a cashier at Ryman's (I needed post-its, and also remembered how much I would have liked customers to give me things when I worked in retail) who said that she didn't really read but she might give it a try - which strikes me as exactly the point of the exercise. She's someone who'd probably never have come across I Capture the Castle otherwise, and now she's got the opportunity to read it and (maybe) enjoy it.

To me, books are a necessity (and one of my favourite things about living in England is that that's actually how they're classed, as VAT-exempt necessities, along with food and children's clothes), but to a lot of people they're pointless luxuries, and reading is a chore rather than a pleasure. I'm not sure World Book Night has quite worked out how to challenge that attitude yet, but it's getting there, and the basic idea behind it, to help show new groups of people that reading can be fun instead of stressful and alienating, is laudable. Does that basic idea always translate into the real world? No. Does the scheme reach the people that it's trying to? Not always. Could it be better directed? Definitely. But it's a start.

Even with the best of intentions, there's only so much a giver can do - the people who are most eager to take the books off you are exactly the ones who already have hundreds at home, and the people who would benefit from a free book most tend not to want to take one. But, that said, I think I'm glad I've been a part of the hand-out this year. If someone who took one of my copies ends up reading it and liking it, then I'll be happy, because (all worries about World Book Night aside) I have true love for I Capture The Castle and an unshakeable belief in its greatness. World Book Night 2012 has given me a wonderful excuse to make more people fall in love with what I love already.

London, I hope you enjoy it.

1 comment:

  1. I missed book night this year for the same sort of reasons, Waterstones had arranged an event but I have lots of books including a lot on the list and it seemed greedy to go along to look for more. Perhaps next year I'll do something more pro active about it. I love the tube idea.