World Book Night, The British Library, 23rd April 2016
It was very exciting to be attending World Book Night and the celebrations for Shakespeare 400. An evening of books, authors and the Bard, in the British Library – what more could you want?
“I am serious about books” said Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library. A great way to start the proceedings! He went on to say what a timely conjunction the events were – of books, reading, the thrill of imagination, listening, performing and thinking. If I hadn’t already felt quite privileged to be at the celebration, I certainly did after this introduction. Sue Wilkinson, MBE, Chief Executive of the Reading Agency then came to the podium, and echoed the feeling that it was the ‘right’ place to celebrate reading, words, and reading for pleasure and very aptly quoted Titus Andronicus “come and take choice of all my library”.
Although I attended World Book Night last year, this event felt more ‘important’ somehow – possibly because of the changes in my own career path and the huge desire I have to encourage reading in others. The announcement of the research by the Reading Agency that proves just how effective World Book Night has been in getting more people to share their love of reading, and in so doing, encouraging others to read, also added to the celebration. Sue Wilkinson said the results were amazing and demonstrated how the event has caused a behavioural change in many non-readers, who have begun their reading journey after being given a book on World Book Night. Giving any gift can show someone appreciation, create bonds and show interest – this in itself can have a huge effect. In a world where so little is really ‘free’, the act of giving a book perhaps helps those receiving them to re-connect with reading, re-discovering stories and how they connect us all, for themselves. Schools, colleges, prisons, libraries, bookshops and many volunteers have all participated in World Book Night, helping to give away more than 155,000 books, which in itself is astounding! With 85% of respondents stating they now read more as a result of receiving a book, there was definitely cause for celebration!
A panel of authors, chaired by Cathy Rentzenbrink, author of The Last Act of Love, including Matt Haig, Dreda Say Mitchell, S. J. Parris, Holly Bourne and Sathnam Sanghera then arrived on stage. Each of the authors talked about their defining reading memories. It was an inspirational hour! Dreda Say Mitchell spoke about the joy of being able to visit Whitechapel Library & Art Gallery ensuring a culturally rich childhood, in contrast to the negative attitudes towards the East End of London. As a bookaholic, Dreda shared the love of storytelling enjoyed by her whole family. She went on to say that reading is about transformation and her work in prisons and with young offenders has enabled her to see the positive impact reading can have. Dreda then read – and sang – the lyrics from Stevie Wonder’s Living for the City, saying that as music tells a story the words of this song struck a chord with her. It was inspiring and indicative that reading creates opportunity.
Holly Bourne, author of The Spinster Club books talked about how reading helped her make sense of the world and feel less alone. She said reading was like ‘the only safe hallucinogenic drug’ which could help her escape some of the realities of life! Holly’s father read with her and through this, and her own reading, she was able to go on adventures anywhere in time and space. I could really relate to this; having a father who encouraged me to read, and a vivid imagination brought to life by books. Holly went on to talk about how secondary school caused her love for reading to start dying, due to the prescriptive, over examined learning and complete lack of choice. A reality that is all too familiar for many young people. Holly then cited the late Louise Rennison as restoring her love for books with the ‘giddy, no-nonsense, cool ‘ stories she wrote, even creating a whole new language Holly could, and still does, share with her friends! As a writer, Holly has been able to utilise her skills of empathy for teenagers in a new way, creating characters that young adults can connect to. Reading aloud ‘Love after Love’ by Derek Walcott, Holly described herself as a late bloomer to poetry, believing that poetry has to ‘find’ you:
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
Next up on the panel was Matt Haig, author of Reasons to Stay Alive, The Humans, A Boy Called Christmas, The Radleys, The Last Family in England, Shadow Forest, To Be A Cat. Matt stated that his favourite books as a child included the Massey Ferguson catalogue! He too commented that school distanced him from the joy of books, preferring film and music. Matt recalled that reading books like ‘The Outsiders’ as a teenager felt like entertainment and interacting with a friend, more akin to reading for pleasure than he had felt before. When he was going through illness, Matt would return to his childhood reads again, such as Roald Dahl, as these were the only way to escape himself – “the only way to leave my mind” he said. The good thing about illness as it turned out was that it narrowed his career options and writing was something he could do. A Roald Dahl fan, who enjoyed the often ‘cold and cruel’ Tales of the Unexpected as a teen and also the Dahl biographies, Matt read from Danny Champion of the World because of its comparative heart and warmth and as a great example of a father/son story.
Sathnam Sanghera, author of Marriage Material and The Boy With the Topknot continued, speaking of parents who were immigrants and a father who was illiterate. It would have been easy to assume Sathnam would not have much access to books or reading. But on the contrary, his father took him and his three siblings to the library every 2 weeks. His brother always read the same book ‘Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat’ and his sister was a massive Enid Blyton fan. The idea of owning a book in his family was something sacred and when Sathnam won a book token and with it bought the collected works of George Orwell, this was something of a status symbol! To this day, Sathnam says the books remain wrapped in clingfilm! S. J. Parris (Stephanie Merritt), author of the Giordano Bruno series continued the theme of Dads who encouraged their children and childhood visits to the library. In addition, with a home full of books and a Dad who recorded made-up stories on cassettes for her, Stephanie was destined to be a reader. Describing herself as an ‘odd teen’ who hid behind the trees or in the library at lunchtime so the school bullies couldn’t find her, she regularly wrote stories and poems. One of her favourite novels from which she read an extract, is A Christmas Carol which she feels truly reflects what it means to be part of human kind. On World Book Night, Stephanie believes it’s the one night readers or writers feel less of a ‘weirdo’!
On Shakespeare, the panel of authors were in agreement that more needs to be done to ensure young people can enjoy his works and access them more easily. As young people, they themselves had struggled to understand Shakespeare. Ideas for this included studying the soliloquies which could be compared to Adrian Mole, imagining the tragedies as high-end soap operas, looking at the forward thinking feminism of the works and finally, allowing Shakespeare to be performed regularly, not just ‘read’ and analysed. Having worked in schools I wholeheartedly agree that there must be a better ‘way in’ to enable young people to relate to Shakespeare. In all seriousness, the panel all discovered an appreciation of Shakespeare in later life and were able to understand his huge contribution to life as we know it.
As if this wasn’t enough, we then went to the main celebration of Shakespeare in the Library and hear none other than Professor David Crystal, Sir Trevor MacDonald and June Brown MBE perform and talk about Shakespeare. The Library foyer was a fittingly grand venue for the occasion. A walk around the Shakespeare in Ten Acts British Library exhibition was fascinating – and after this, we left, feeling inspired and elated to have been part of something so special. Reading for me is part of who I am so celebrating books and reading is a bit like throwing myself a party. Huge congratulations to all the organisers for such a great event and well done to all the amazing people who make World Book Night happen.