Thursday, 1 March 2012

10 Thoughts For World Book Day

Today is World Book Day. I thought I'd take this as a moment to make some observations on what those words mean to me. Some are questions, some are just thoughts. And there's the odd recommendation

1. There are people in the world who do not and never will have access to a book, and certainly not to technology capable of reading or writing ebooks. Remember that when you think of a technology or a book being "for everybody." And remember that many who will never see a book may have a richer storytelling life than us.

2. What is a book? I have often siad that as a writer I don't write books, I tell stories.

3. We talk a lot about how ebooks are revolutionisng everything from publishing to the way we make marmite, it seems. But we are also seeing a rebirth in high quality handmade books go hand in hand with that. Here's one:

4. We are also seeing a renaissance in translated books and books from around the world. From publishers like Peirene and And Other Stories.

5. Just this week we have seen Paypal and Smashwords embroiled in a controversy about censorship that reminds us even those with access to technology and books do not have access to everything that is written. What "books" mean in one country or to one group might mean something very different elsewhere.

6. We are not just divided by geography, as this shows. We are divided by morality, but also by class and ideology. I am currently reading Owen Jones' Chavs, which reminds us how real the class divide is. What does this have to do with books? Well, I've written about the way the publishing industry is a self-perpetuating bubble. It keeps some on the outside with the vicious circle of marketing logic - they don't publish things by people in certain groups because there's no evidence there's a readership - but as long as nothing is published, there can be no evidence either way, so some remain permanently excluded. Though self-publishing may act to prove these markets - which can only be a good thing.

7. Books are not traditionally made by everyone - they are produced by publishers. Yet stories are created by andbelong to everyone. Is the divide between these two really only about "quality", whatever that means?

8. As well as World Book Day, there is World Book Night on April 23rd. This is ostensibly about bringing more people to reading. But is it really about that or is it about bringing more or even more of the same authors to the public?

9. Why do we care about books? I do, but I often wonder why. What is it about them? Personal nostalgia? Social and economic usefulness? Enjoyment? Establishing one's place in the nexus of interconnected collective myths? Because we are told they are a good thing? Learning for learning's sake? I don't know, but I do know we don't ask this fundamental question enough, but take the value of books as an axiom.

10. Let me recommend a book from a different world from me. It's The Bacchae, by Euripides. It was written in a different language from mine, two and a half thousand years ago, but when I read it it feels like the author had lifted the skin off our society and stared at its DNA. If it were written tomorrow, it would still feel modern. It is a study of mass violence, crowd psychology, jealousy and discrimination, and it is a masterpiece.


  1. Just a quick illustration of points 3 and 4. This is Viggo Mortensen's private publishing house. Every step, every word, every peice of art carefully chosen.

  2. thank you, Helen

    Letitia - there are some gorgeous thnigs there!

  3. Goodness, Dan - why do I care about books? I spend years working as a therapist, and don't have the faintest idea. I'm just glad that I do!

  4. Yes, I know, me too (glad that I do, not the years working as a therapist - years *seeing* a therapist, mind...). It just strikes me sonetimes that we take it as sacrosanct yet without understanding why (I do think there are some bad reasons for saying books are good, and think it would be helpful if advocacy steered away from their implications, but I'm not sure that gets me much closer) and that this might be odd and the resulting behaviour could be odd if we're not sure of our motives at a deep level

  5. I suppose I spent so long trying to fathom the deep and meaningful, I'm now having a lovely time enjoying what is. Which isn't to say it's not important, or relevant, or worth thinking about. But today it's someone else's turn to do the thinking!

    (The spring sun is shining. Maybe I can think about it when it rains ...)

  6. I think your eloquent comments in point 10 pretty much answer your question in point 9... The fact that something written so long ago can still have that kind of impact on people is staggering, when you think about it.

    Let's also not forget that censorship is alive and well, even in the our oh-so-enlightened West:

    (2002 - Roald Dahl? People are trying to stop kids reading Roald Dahl? WTF?)

  7. Jo - yes, after leaving university it was a joy to read a book just for the sake of it rather than to dissect it

    James - yes, alive and kicking (as per the smashwords debate) - censoring Roald Dahl is plain bonkers! I can't think of a better way to get most kids reading than Roald Dahl - perhaps it's reverse psychology ;)

  8. Why do I care about books? Because books saved my life. Because books took me outside of my experience to another place entirely, because words broke the conspiracy of silence, because I lived on them when I was young, because they were and still are the best and truest of companions.....because the power of fiction to get at the truth is unrivalled...

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