Monday, 7 March 2011

World Book Night, why the fuss?

May be it is in my genes, but I am not a passionate person by nature. Excess of passion, in my view, leads to general elevation of nervous energy, heightening of emotions that are frequently undesirable, and tightening of things that ought to be loose.

The list of things I don’t feel passionate about is long. For example, I don’t feel passionate about people or organisations coming up with worthy ideas. Such as the World Book night. The BBC reported that a million books were given away across the UK as part of Word Book Night. This suggests that the book night was being celebrated somewhere else in the world. Was it? No it wasn’t. I went to the website of the World Book Night, and this is what they had to say about the event:

On Saturday, 5 March 2011, two days after World Book Day, with the full support of the Publishers Association, the Booksellers Association, the Independent Publishers Guild, the Reading Agency with libraries, World Book Day, the BBC and RTE, one million books will be given away by an army of passionate readers to members of the public across the UK and Ireland.’

So, if the Book Night was going to be celebrated only in the UK and Ireland, why not call it UK and Ireland Book Night? I will tell you why. That wouldn’t have been grandiose enough, that’s why. The factor underlying such grandiosity that seems impervious to reality’s attempt to make itself felt, I suspect, is a defect of perception. As a nation we believe that world lies, in its entirety, in the diameter of our ass. The empire disappeared decades ago, but it is still alive and vibrant in our heads. As I remember reading somewhere, if the Channel closes due to fog, the headlines in our papers would be: ‘Channel closed, continent isolated.’

Organisers of the event might say that London is just the beginning and that they have plans to roll out this programme in different parts of the world. (That’s what they did say, as reported by the BBC.) There is however not so much as a hint as to how they are going to do this and in which parts of the world. (I expect they wouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to launch the book night in Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt and Bahrain, to name just a few countries that randomly come to mind.)

So, let’s get one thing straight. This was not a World Book Night. It was an event limited to a few major cities in the UK. I do not know whether it was celebrated even in Ireland. (While you’d expect the Irish to flock to any event where freebies are handed out, given the state of the Irish economy, which is worse than our economy (that makes it pretty dire), the only book they would be interested in, I’d have thought, would be The Intelligent Investor.

On the day of the launch I Ioitered with intent outside the Waterstone’s for a while, hoping to get my hands on some of the free books that were allegedly being given away, even though I have all except 2-3 of the books in my collection. I didn’t buy Agent Zigzag, the account of the derring-dos of a courageous but unpredictable MI5 double agent during the Second World War, reasoning that if he was that important and useful someone would have found out about him in the past 65 years. I haven’t got the thrillers in my collection either because I don’t much go for the genre fiction (but perhaps I should); ditto for the children’s fiction. My vague plan was to go to two or three different places and collect at least 5-6 books that would include thrillers like Killing Floor, and see whether I liked them. The books that I already have in my collection, I’d have either flogged them on the e-bay or given as Christmas presents in 10 months.

I was therefore not best pleased when I didn’t detect anyone bearing gifts of free books. I was further cheesed off when, later, I learned while watching the BBC 2 programmes devoted to the World (!) Book Night that they were giving away these books in the Homeless hostels. There was a grinning idiot in Manchester whispering to two other idiots—a simpering woman who couldn’t believe she was on national television and a man whose unusual hairstyle, combined with his thick glasses conspired to give him a slightly unhinged appearance—in some flea pot, where, insofar as I could see, 3/4th of the seats were empty and some bloke in the background was reading out from a book. The faces of the few of the hosteites on whom the camera focused showed that they were dozing. I see many homeless beggars. I have very rarely seen a beggar reading literary fiction. These guys (they seem to be almost always men) usually sit on newspaper with a can of special brew in hand (and several empty cans around them) and a dog who looks much cleaner than them. Some of them are either too tired or (more likely) couldn’t be bothered to speak, and write on a cardboard in front of them (usually with not a great deal of attention to grammar and syntax) that they are hungry and homeless. Some of them politely ask you for a change and, when you ignore them and walk past, they wish you a good day. That is the other thing. They always ask for money or food. I have never met a homeless beggar who has requested the latest Margaret Atwood. Honesty, can you think of a more asinine idea than giving away books to a group of people, half of whom probably can’t read and the other half is drunk out of their faces to know what time of the day it is. I would suggest that what these people require is home, food, handy tips about personal hygiene, and a referral to Drug and Alcohol Services. What they don’t need is Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

The choices of other venues to give away the free books seemed equally bizarre. Apparently, the books were being given away in pubs and hospitals. I didn’t see anyone outside the pub to which I went to watch the premiership football after my unsuccessful attempt to spot a book-giver. Which was just as well. The regulars at the pub where I go haven’t struck me as terrifically literary minded. It is the sort of pub where an inadvertent glance in the direction of breasts is likely to be followed by an invitation (by the bloke who thinks he is not only the rightful  owner of said pair of breasts but also of the space surrounding them) to step out in the car park so that he can reassemble your face. These guys go to the pubs to watch football, play pool and drink lots of lager. I don’t think these guys go much for reading, which is for the Nancy Boys. May be I go to a particularly rough pub. May be there are pubs where men and women sit around in groups and discuss the literary tropes in the nineteenth century fiction, and would like nothing more than tucking into an invigorating discussion of Sarah Water’s Fingersmith; but I doubt it.

The other chosen venue to give these books away was hospitals. Has any of these guys actually visited NHS wards? If they are under the impression that NHS hospitals are quiet tranquil places where you go for a respite and, tucked into your comfy bed, reading The Blind Assassin would add to the delights of your stay that is getting better by the day, you’d be wrong. In case the news has not yet reached the British Booksellers Association, these days your only chance of getting into a hospital ward is being at the death’s door. And when you are lying there in a pool of your own vomit, drifting in and out of consciousness, you’d be a tad disinclined to read about Rachel’s Holiday.

OK, we have established that the grandiose title of the World Book Night is misleading to say the least and the choices of venues to give away the million plus books suggest that the organisers have taken complete leave of their senses.

What about the whole idea of giving away books for free? Those authors who agreed for their books to be included in the free-book list (apparently chosen by a committee of librarians, booksellers and broadcasters) and participated in the opening event at the Trafalgar Square obviously thought it was the best thing to have happened since the invention of sandwich. They thought that it would immeasurably help book sells. Sarah—Fingersmith— Waters said that the book she would choose to give to her closest friends would be Jane Eyre. I don’t know whether she was taking the piss, but Jane Eyre—a dubious choice, if you ask me, but at least she didn’t suggest the bloody Pride and Prejudice—is out of copy-right. You can download it for free from any of the internet sites; if, like me, you have not crossed over to the dark side (Kindle), you can get it for a quid. Author Philip Pullman said he would recommend The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I am having serious doubts about the judgment of this guy. As I have shown in my devastating critique of this novel on this blog, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is—how shall I put this delicately?—a book your collection could easily do without. That brings to my mind the (related) question: can the man Pullman, whose judgment with regard to the books he recommends is so faulty, be trusted in anything that he says? I think not.

There were other authors who spoke at the Trafalgar Square. They even wheeled out Edna O’Brien. I thought she was dead. Don’t get me wrong. The few books of O’Brien I have read I have enjoyed them immensely. But her comment— that if young people stopped reading banality would spread like plague—in addition to being banal, has come, you might be tempted to remind the Dame, too late. If the experience of my ex-partner, of teaching in a secondary comprehensive, is anything to go buy, the age of banality has long since gone; the age of degeneracy has arrived. But I will give Edna O’Brien the benefit of my doubt. May be the crowd at the Trafalgar had turned the old woman’s head and she did not know what she was babbling. She gave an indirect hint of the unstable state of her mind when she said that the musicians draw great crowds, authors generally don’t.’ That is correct. Authors too would draw huge crowds if they had the body of Beyonce and strut about the stage wearing as little as possible without being actually naked.

Alan Bennett drew applause from the crowd when he criticised the imminent closure of the libraries and compared it to child abuse. I can understand Bennett’s desire to make his point forcefully and taking recourse to hyperbole, the last resort, I remember reading somewhere, of every third-rate writer. However, comparing the closure of a few libraries across the country to the indescribable trauma an innocent child is subjected to seems inappropriate to me. In any case, I have mixed views about local libraries. For years I avoided them preferring instead to buy books because I like the feeling that I am the owner of the book. However, I will accept that many people who for all sorts of reasons are not able to buy books and love reading depend on libraries. I have started borrowing books from the library myself recently and buy considerably less these days than I did a year ago. That said, when I go to the local libraries (usually on weekends) I am invariably greeted with the spectacle of gaggles of teenagers with outlandish hairstyle gossiping and talking amongst themselves at volumes that would make it impossible for anyone to read in peace. None of them can be found with a book in his hand; and they talk mostly about sex. It is very annoying.  I accept that this is not a reason why libraries should be closed. A more pragmatic solution would be to chuck these obnoxious people out, although, in my local library, the staff seem ineffectual or reluctant to do that. However, as Indians in a book I read a while ago are inordinately fond of exclaiming whenever faced with a problem to which they have no solution, ‘What to do?’ The country, as Prime Minister Cameron keeps on reminding us, has run out of money; the coffers are empty, apparently. Which means something has to go. If you want the Trident, the libraries will have to close, I am afraid; and if that means banality will be even more widely spread, what to do? We should have thought about all this before wasting billions on invading countries that had posed us no threat and caused no harm. (Not only we wasted billions, we elected the war criminal for another term of office).
So, no; I can’t understand all this fuss about the World Book Night. I say this neither as a perennial grouch, forever cloaked, like an old coat, by his perpetually negative attitude towards everything, nor as a disgruntled (well, only a bit) customer who missed out on the freebies. It gives me no pleasure (well, just a tiny bit) to say this. But I will say it. World Book Night was a load of bollocks. It will not increase awareness of reading. Those who like reading don’t need these incentives, and those who don’t, won’t be persuaded because they are not interested in the first place. No amount of hammering would make a noodle go through the wall.