The World Book Night blog

We are very sad to hear that our colleagues at World Book Night US are suspending operations as of today, 02/07/2014. http://ow.ly/yHD65

It has been wonderful working with them and we have seen the difference their programme has made to reaching readers all over the United States. We agree that involvement in World Book Night is life changing for everyone; for those who create it, deliver and benefit from it.

We want to assure our followers and supporters that the suspension of operations in the US will not affect World Book Night in the UK. We have exciting plans for World Book Night 2015 and beyond, which will be shaped and informed by the evaluation we have carried out this year. The full results of the survey will be published later this month and the selection panel for World Book Night 2015 will meet in September. Here's to sharing and celebrating our love of reading!

To celebrate World Book Night 2014, we spoke to Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting and all round literary legend about his reading habits, his lifelong love for libraries and which book he'd choose to give away...

 

welsh irvine bw c rankin

World Book Night is about opening up opportunities to reading. How did your reading life begin?

I started off reading books about politics and history and was fascinated by that, then got into science and engineering. Novels only started to get a grip on me when I was getting towards my late teens. I got very into Waugh and Orwell, two very English writers who were the first major influences on me. Waugh comes from a completely different social milieu than the one I write about, but I liked the way he dealt with relationships, and particularly relationships between men. He captures that kind of false bonhomie and competitiveness and schadenfreude that exists, and that was a big building block for me.

I loved Orwell for his understanding of people and human nature and his relentless honesty in terms of looking at life the way it is rather than the way he wants it to be. After that, the revelation for me was getting into writers like James Kelman and William McIlvaney who came from the same background as I came from and were writing about the kind of people I recognised and knew, but were writing serious literature. That was a big thing. When you see people like that coming from the same background as you, that sort of gives you permission to become a writer. It’s not about English public school and Oxbridge types lounging around in a drawing room. It’s about people living on council estates going about the business of getting on with life.

As a writer, how important is your own reading now and how do you choose what to read?

When you become a writer you end up working all the time. I’ve usually either got a novel, a stageplay or a screenplay on the go, and what this means is that you work on a project basis and tend to be selective about your reading around that project. It means that you don’t read as much for pleasure and don’t discover books in the same way, and that’s a major bugbear for me. I really have to make the time to read.

Publishers send you books that they think you’ll like based on the stuff you’ve written, and that tends to be a reinforcing thing, so I’ve started to ignore them. I really want to get back to discovering books again and taking the time to browse in a bookshop for something that’s a bit leftfield. You have to find the right bookshops, though; they’ve become so regimented around marketing with sci-fi, horror, fantasy and crime sections. You sometimes feel like you’re walking into a marketing hole rather than just browsing freely for a book.

I like to find novels that aren’t necessarily particularly polished or well-realised but that have got a voice or a little nugget of something that’s completely unique. That kind of uniqueness is pretty much frowned upon nowadays. A novel like Trainspotting would never be published in the conservative publishing world of today. A novel that’s gloriously flawed but has a bit of brilliance and uniqueness in it is less preferable to publishers than something polished, a conveyor-belt creative writing school-type of novel that feels like it’s been written with a pair of rubber gloves on. All the best voices are unique but flawed.

We’ve become more conservative as a reading public and as a cultural public because of the times that we live in. We’re not really looking for things that are unique, upsetting or unsettling, we’re looking for things that are relatively familiar and safe. It’s similar with TV, films and music. There’s a sort of experience that we have that’s shared, but we have to remember that the interesting stuff happens outside of that.

We've done some research into male reading habits and found that 63% of men admit they don’t read as much as they think they should. What do you think about reading in general being in decline?

It’s not so much that reading is in decline, but the kind of reading that can take you on a real journey inside yourself, into the different chambers of your own consciousness, that’s what is in decline. Now it’s all about the short-term, blogging and tweets, which doesn’t give us a chance to go off on a journey. A lot of it has to do with a horrible work culture that we have. Reading is almost seen as a self-indulgence, a decadent extravagance when we should be earning money or doing something else. There are so many demands on our time now, and we live in such a psychoactive culture ruled by the tyranny of the screen. We engage with text so much through that and we find it very difficult and weird to just sit down and read, but we absolutely have to do it.

Which book would you give away on World Book Night and why?

I’d give Chicago writer Bill Hillman’s book The Old Neighbourhood, which has just been published here in the US. It’s a book that comes straight from the heart. It’s an archetypal experience of a young guy in Chicago who’s on the precipice of ruining his life but actually pulls it back. Life is all about the choices we make, even though our capacity to choose is often very limited. The kid in the book is only about sixteen and it really illustrates that incredibly thin line between having a decent life of success or one of abject failure and misery spent in prison. The older you get the more you see that in retrospect among the people you’ve grown up with, and the more you see it in kids on the street now. One arbitrary act or decision can change everything.

One thing I really like about Bill Hillman’s book is that he actually deals with a real place in Chicago. There are too many American and European books that write about some place like it’s a generic inner-city. When you walk down the streets in Edgewater in Chicago you get a real feel for The Old Neighbourhood. I tried to do this with Leith in my books, to write about somewhere where you can get a feel for the place and the characters. Even though the area is gentrified you can still see pockets of what’s being written about.

Libraries are crucial to the work we do at World Book Night. What are your views on libraries, your experience of them and the work they do?

I grew up near Muirhouse public library in Edinburgh, which was a great place of refuge for me as a kid and it fed my imagination. I’m massively pro-library. Most people agree that libraries are a great thing but it’s a bit like Save the Panda, everyone thinks it’s fantastic but nobody really does that much about it. It’s the constant encroachments on our time. We’ve created a society where loads of people have too much work and loads of people don’t have enough. Until we can actually start to distribute work and the rewards of it more equitably we can’t divide leisure time more equitably, and nor can we divide cultural and learning time more equitably.

Libraries do still have a place, though. One of the great things for me is that if I walk into a local library that’s where I can find out everything about the local area that I’m in. I do a lot of writing in libraries. I’ll jump on the subway in Chicago to a part of town that I’ve never been in and I’ll browse the library to find out about the area, its history, how it developed. It gives you an insight into where you are, and instead of it just being a series of buildings and streets, you can actually see into the soul of the place you’re in and that’s very important.

Where I grew up in Muirhouse, the public library was the only real public building that you could actually go into. There are more community centres now but it was the one place that you could go into when it was freezing, when the shops shut and you were too young to get into the pubs. The great thing about Muirhouse was that it was full of really vibrant, imaginative people. The actual environment was very cold and grey with maisonette blocks and post-war tenement houses, but the people brought the colour. When you’re all chatting away together and telling tales and jokes and coming out with all sorts of weird stuff, it fuels your imagination. You do need solitude as well, though, and to get into your own imaginative space, to sit down in the quiet with a book and take yourself out of the environment you’re in. It’s a gateway to another world. Without sounding too poncey and artsy and pretentious, that’s what the library was for me. It instilled in me the deep-rooted desire to travel and to see all these places I was reading about as a kid, both real and imaginary.

Irvine Welsh is the author of Trainspotting. His latest novel is The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins (Jonathan Cape). He lives in Chicago and Miami.

 

I thought I’d share my World Book Night experience:
What a difference a year makes. Last year I was giving “Small Island” in the Oaks shopping centre in Acton, West London. This is not a place where literacy looms large: it’s ripe for redevelopment and features a Netto and several pound stores. This year it’s no better but some passing shoppers have actually heard of World Book Night. A couple of responses of:  “oh, yes please, I saw it on the telly” and slightly less bemusement at a bonkers, middle-aged woman trying to give total strangers books for free.

This year I chose to give “The Reader” which is about how not being able to read, as an adult, can wreck your life. I chose this book because last year I met R who said she couldn’t take my book because she couldn’t read or write at all. She was so sad about it and so determined to learn that I agreed we would find her a course and that, after a year, I would give her a WBN book of her own. Last year, it was a chance encounter in a grim shopping centre. This year we met in a local cafe, as we have every couple of months since she started her classes at the local college. She can’t read “The Reader” yet but she has made progress. She attends college at least twice a week and does homework in between. But it transpires she had a head injury as a child which may have affected her ability to read, so it is a struggle.   We read the first pages together. She will get there.

I suppose giving a book like this would bring out other stories. One young woman, keen to chat, told me her partner is illiterate and terribly embarrassed about it. She’d like him to go on a course but, like R, finds there is very little provision for learning to read and write as an adult – it tends to get mixed in with learning English as a Foreign Language when, actually, it’s quite different.  She reads quite a bit herself, though she’s struggled with dyslexia, and is totally determined that her two boys would grow up to be keen on books. She reads to them every night even though the older is now progressing through Harry Potter. At the other end of the reading scale, I’d already pressed a copy into the hands of a chatty lady before she told me she used to own and run a nearby Christian bookshop. She offered to give it back because she said she felt undeserving, but that seemed a bit cruel. And she balanced the passing woman whose response to my cheery “do you like to read?” was a baleful look and  “NO – only the Bible” as she rushed past my sinful offering.
 
The other change from last year is that, in the meantime, I have set up a book swap at Acton Central station: three shelves with an ever-changing rotation of all sorts of books. Poetry and children’s go like hot cakes. Stray volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and old psychology journals in German do not. No-one has donated “Fifty Shades of Grey” yet but we’ve had all sorts of fact and fiction in a whole range of languages. I started it last summer because we were on the line to the Olympics at Stratford and I thought people might appreciate something to read. Now it’s really embedded; supported and enjoyed by the community.  But it could always do with more readers and more books. So whenever I gave “The Reader” to someone who wanted to talk, I could tell them about the book swap and how it works. Quite a few recipients were really interested and promised to visit – once they’d finished their new book. Reading isn’t just for World Book Night but the whole year. 

Sara Nathan

Well, WBN 2013 did not go to plan. I had planned to give my book away on my street, by leafleting people and holding a book stall on the day itself, when I would also give away those of my own books I am realistically not going to read again. Plans changed when I was allocated Last Night Another Soldier by Andy McNab, a Quick Read specially written and produced for adult learning to read. To me, this did not seem the best book to choose for the proposed event. So, I decided to link up with adult education providers and to donate the books at one of their centres. This was the start of my education, and a rather unhappy journey at times.

First of all, it was very hard to find out what provision there was for adult education and adult literacy in my area. And then it was even harder to realise that much of this provision had been closed down or moved from dedicated adult and community education providers to job centres. It was especially depressing when a local library, based on a council estate in a very deprived area of town, could not give me any information about where adult literacy classes were taking place. But worse was to come ... I was advised that adult education provision, and adult literacy and numeracy, had held up better in a neighbouring borough. They even had a book group for adult literacy learners. However, when I phoned the organisers I received a very polite, but curt, refusal. They had plenty of WBN books to choose from, as the borough library had promoted WBN and several librarians had been succesful. And my WBN book would not be of interest to or suitable for the group.

I was so shocked by this response that I forgot to ask why ... The next group I was put in touch with - a book group for adults with physical and learning disabilities which reads only Quick Reads - were delighted to be part of WBN but their organiser's face fell when she learnt what the book would be. Too male. Too much gore and war. She didn't think the group, especially the women in the group, would like it. I sympathised. I hold that awkward liberal ground of opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but empathy and support for the soldiers fighting them. Before I moved to the North East, which is a traditional recruiting ground for the army, I didn't have the empathy. I had never known anyone in the forces, let alone seen the devastation which is caused when someone dies on active service.

So, 20 books to give away that nobody seemed to want. I was getting rather cross with adult literacy educators who were acting as cultural gatekeepers, so it was a relief to finally talk to one who admitted that it would not be their first choice of a book to read but that was not to say it wouldn't appeal to the students.

I visited two providers: one in my town centre, linked to a religious charity, and one in the neighbouring borough, at a dedicated adult education centre. In both, the student group was very diverse: men and women of different ages from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. The books were donated to the groups rather than individuals, as there would not have been enough to go round otherwise. There was lively discussion about WBN, interest that Andy McNab himself had attended adult education classes when he left the army and some discussion about whether this was a man's book or not; and whether it mattered if it was. There was the same puzzled delight that the books were free I associate with each WBN. There was also real curiousity about being a giver. The adult education centre organiser suggested that some of the students might want to apply to be givers in 2014 and that we could organise a reading evening event at the centre for local residents.

I have also undertaken to buy a Quick Read set of books chosen by the Book Group for people with physical and learning disabilities and to visit and discuss it with them.

So, in the end, everything worked out well but I did have moments of wondering whether I might have to return the books ..... Thankfully, that didn't happen and I think some good connections to encourage reading were made as a result of WBN 13.

A story to remember that not all givers have quite the experience they hoped for...

Dear World Book Night,

You can't imagine how thrilled I was to take part in this celebration of books and reading. I felt mountain goosebumps poking out my sleeves when I collected the 20 copies of Judge Dredd. This is such a beautifully illustrated, if somewhat gruesome, classic comic series that many people admire and some collect obsessively. For this reason, I was anticipating a good reception; I imagined a stream of receivers queing at the chance to be given a free copy in this handsome special edition. I was worried I would not have enough books to go around and some people would be left disappointed.

It was a real shock to me that my real experience of book-giving was a bit of a crazy ride. It quickly went from some easy, pleasant initial contacts, to hostile rejection, finally reaching a disastrous conclusion.

My target receivers were younger men who lived to the north of where I live, in a rather deprived area of Bristol. Being on a low wage myself, I normally shop at a large discount supermarket there. Unemployment rates in this neighbourhood are rather high, and loitering a common activity; a few groups of people, mainly men, use the front entrance of the library to gather in the evenings and have a relaxed chat, drinking socially. The library and supermarket are areas where a few people tend to collect naturally, so that's where I headed.

Even though I personally liked other titles in the list better, I chose this particular one because I assumed would be closer to what people who don't normally read would consider fun and approachable; the fantastic/superhero subject matter seemed to go with current trends in cinema and video games, and -I was hoping- it would make people feel it didn't have to be a chore to read through. Full disclosure: I have many friends who will refuse to pick up a regular novel, claiming no time to spare, but will very gladly take on reading a beast of a graphic novel or a long, never-ending comic series.

The evening started really well, I thought. I gave the first 3 books to three younger people who were standing near my bus stop and who said they would be happy to read the book and access the web page to leave feedback on it, maybe even pass it on - I could see in their eyes, however, that they were already becoming attached to their copies.

I gave the 4th book to the bus driver of my regular line who always looks unhappy, worn out, and saw him smile widely for the first time. When I looked back he was still stopped leafing through the book, a bunch of puzzled passengers aboard.

I “officially” started my World Book Night event by standing by the supermarket door and offering the books to people walking past me. I have to admit I was feeling very nervous and out of place. After all, this is a hard area with hard to reach people, and nobody gives you anything for free, right? So where's the catch?

A couple of men picked up my books: one reacted happily on seeing the cover, so I assumed he knew the series; Another one was a young man who seemed to be supported to do his shopping. I am quite sure he had a learning difficulty or mental health condition, so was personally thrilled to give a book to him, since this is the client group I support at work and had wrongly assumed none would be interested. I had initially approached his companion, who was walking a few steps ahead, and who refused my book; she had to laugh out loud when the man suddenly shouted from inside the shop 'Yeah I'll have it! I love books!'.

From then on, all I got were rejections. Most people would stop and listen, then look at the book cover and physically recoil. Most men were keen to talk to me, while women invariably walked past very fast and avoided eye contact. A man scrunched his face when he saw the book, then did a double take when I said 'do you know the Judge Dredd comics?'. I have the feeling that the title and cover illustration gave the book a slight appearance of it being a religious publication. This is just conjecture, of course, but most people's reactions seemed to be in this vein. I have to admit this was a thought that went through my head as I opened the box of books.

I tried a local chippy to no success and a few smirks, then the library entrance steps, where a group of mostly men were gathering. They looked truly amused by my approaching them and one picked up four of my books diligently and said 'I'll pass them around', following on with what seemed to be a mockery of a teacher handing out materials at a lesson. The others laughed. The only lady in the group refused by saying 'I wouldn't have space to keep it'. As I walked away, I heard a dumping noise, laughter and a loud comment, and saw that the man had dropped the books to the floor by a rubbish bag. I smiled and shrugged.

I went back to the spot when they were gone, hoping to recover the books, only to find out that they had actually taken them away.

I am sorry to say that I was feeling a bit defeated at that point, so my last receiver was the nice till attendant at the supermarket where I ended up doing my shopping. I explained nobody wanted to take my books and she agreed to take two, 'one for my friend'.

I still have 7 books ungiven. I have pledged to do my bit, so I will find readers even if it's not on World Book Night. So sorry about this. I have contacted several friends who work with vulnerable young adults, who will hopefully help me distribute the rest of the books around. I will post some more feedback to let you know how it's gone.

I would like to thank you wholeheartedly for the opportunity to participate in this stunning project. My belief in the power of reading remains untainted. I am sure some of those who reluctantly took my books will secretly enjoy them and, who knows, maybe they will go back to the library for an extra dose.

Yours sincerely,

Laura

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On World Book Night

I am delighted that one of my books has been included in World Book Night. I didn’t read my first book until the age of 17, but I clearly remember the feeling of pride and achievement when I closed the cover at the end. Books changed my life and if World Book Night puts books into the hands of people who otherwise might not discover them then it is achieving something incredibly important.

Andy McNab

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