World Book Night: A book so good they
want to give it to you for free
This widespread, personalised championing of books couldn't come at
a better time, writes Gaby Wood.
  By Gaby Wood 7:13PM GMT 03 Mar 2011
Brian Eno will be giving out books to mark the first annual World Book Night

I don’t know what your usual response is when a stranger thrusts a book into your hands (“No thank you, I’m already a Jehovah’s Witness”?), but if it happens tomorrow night, my suggestion would be to accept the gift. March 5 marks the first annual World Book Night, an insanely bold initiative whereby a million books will be given away. The people handing them out will be members of the public who have chosen a particular book they love enough to recommend to strangers on the street. The tens of thousands of “givers” include Brian Eno, Tracy Chevalier and Julian Assange, who is giving out All Quiet on the Western Front; the Duchess of Cornwall, meanwhile, recommends One Day by David Nicholls. The launch will take the form of a party for 10,000 revellers tonight in Trafalgar Square. Look out for Graham Norton and Alan Bennett jostling for position on the fourth plinth.

This widespread, personalised championing of books couldn’t come at a better time. We are living through a revolution in the world of words – one literary agent said this week that in a few years, no author, publisher or agent will be able to make a living from writing. That might turn out to be true; it has been true before – the list of day jobs not given up by great authors is long and varied. Whatever the future for writers, though, the way we read has already changed enormously: we read on gadgets, we read in groups, books are recommended to us not by mighty literary critics but by a miscellany of bloggers and booksellers as well as friends. It has led many to ask whether literary criticism itself is dead.
The trouble is not the democracy of viewpoints (as is often bemoaned) but the ascendancy of writing over reading. Everyone wants to be a writer – everyone wants to be seen – but no one values the less visible art of being a good reader any more. Close reading has been confined to academia, whereas – in the days when the legendary literary editor Terence Kilmartin saved David Astor’s life with one hand and translated Proust with the other – it used to have a place in the sorts of pages you are perusing now. We’re very proud of our current literary contributors here, and of our history. Nevertheless, as a matter of general habit, it seems worth emphasising that our best critics have been readers first and writers second.
There is one select group of people who have been upset by World Book Night: those independent booksellers who believe that by giving away a million books, the WBN organisers are depriving them of sorely needed income at a time when they are being undercut by supermarket chains and tortured by Amazon. I should, for accuracy’s sake, clarify that each of the million books due to be handed out has been printed especially, so they are not copies these traders could otherwise sell. The worry is that they will, in the words of one bookseller, “erode the public’s perception of the value of books”.
I don’t think that will happen. I’m as vehemently in favour of WBN as I am of independent bookshops. I say this not as a charitable nod to some almost-lost cause, but because I believe small bookshops have developed a new and vital role, precisely as a result of the changes in our reading habits.
As reading on electronic devices becomes more common, and panic over the perceived Kindle Catastrophe dies down, people who oversee physical books are thinking more creatively about what they can offer by contrast. So books become more precious as objects (design becomes more important, clever new formats are invented) and booksellers are – or should be – turned to as curators of our cultural lives.
A bit more literally-inclined:
Seb thinks so! Although Cordelia says that that is a silly thing to wish for, and that the population's illiteracy prevents them from becoming too disappointed....
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