March 7, 2011

MobyLives eyewitness report: World Book Night


Trafalgar Square

As the official British correspondent for MobyLives, this weekend I attended the wonderful launch of World Book Night to report back to our readers on the festivities. The opening ceremony took place on Friday 4th March in Trafalgar Square, with a line-up of authors including Nick Cave, John le Carre, Sarah Waters and many others. The set-up was pretty spectacular, with a stage under Nelson’s Column furnished to look like a cosy sitting room full of couches and even a fireplace which, unfortunately for the night’s readers, was not real.

By 6pm Trafalgar Square was filled with people eagerly waiting for the start of the night, which was briefly introduced by Jamie Byng, the brains behind World Book Night and head of Canongate Books. The idea behind the evening was for authors to read from either their own work or from their favourite texts. The first author to kick off the proceedings was Australian writer DBC Pierre, author of Booker Prize-winning Vernon God Little, who decided to read from the opening of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. Given the rapidly dropping temperature of the evening, it was an appropriate choice, but what was even more striking was the hush that spread across the crowd as he started reading.

Sofas and a mock fireplace

The crowd remained attentive and maintained high spirits throughout the event, and highlights included British author Alan Bennett who read from his memoir A Life Like Other People’s, and who concluded his reading with the frank statement, ‘Closing libraries is child abuse!’ which was met with huge cheers throughout the crowd. Later, Philip Pullman, who has also been a key figure in the fight against UK library closures, read from his novel The Northern Lights.

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London

Other great moments included London Mayor Boris Johnson who appeared on stage to a mixture of applause and heckling from the audience, but ultimately won the crowd over with his hearty rendition of a passage from Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. Before reading he informed the audience; ‘It is my duty, my Mayoral duty to read you one of the best short accounts of a hangover ever to appear in English Literature’.

Another huge supporter of World Book Night, Mark Haddon, introduced his reading by saying, ‘A really good book does an extraordinary thing which nothing else in the world can do which is to give you instant intimate access into the mind of another human being,’ and ‘World book night is about giving and sharing things for free in a world that is obsessed with money and profit’. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was the most requested book out of the 25 titles chosen for World Book Night.

Margaret Atwood

One of the biggest hits of the weekend was Margaret Atwood, who flew in all the way from Canada to take part in the festivities. She read a passage from her novel The Blind Assassin, which was also one of the 25 titles chosen. She introduced her reading by commenting on how brave the audience was to withstand the cold, and imparted the following advice regarding the best way to entice potential lovers:

‘…his method of seduction is storytelling, and this is why you should all read a lot! If you are a male person, then you will know a lot of stories to tell, and if you’re a female person then you’ll know when you’ve heard them before’.

Window display at Foyles

The next day was World Book Night itself, so I decided to visit a couple of bookstores before heading over the WBN party at the Southbank Centre. I stopped at Waterstone’s Piccadilly, which had several displays and was hosting a book quiz later that evening. At Foyles, I even managed to pick myself up a WBN copy of Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Margaret Atwood at the Southbank Centre

Later in the evening at the blissfully warm Southbank Centre, the night started off with readings from up and coming authors Rebecca Hunt, Stuart Evers, Evie Wyld and Joe Dunthorne, and also included other bookish activities such as literary speed dating, book exchanges, music, and my favourite — a corner devoted to a poetry doctor, where patients were prescribed poems for their ailments of body and soul.

Big Green Bookshop

Also in attendance at this event were some lovely folks handing out flyers in support of the Big Green Bookshop in North London. These guys are a struggling independent store, and they’ve recently launched a campaign to try and help save their store from closing down, so if you get a spare moment, check them out and support them in whatever way you can. In spite of some indie Booksellers having reservations about the potential impact of WBN, the people from the Big Green Bookshop were supportive and excited about the project, and in particular spoke about the sense of community which they hoped that World Book Night would help to build.

Me and my WBN copy of Love in the Time of Cholera

Whether or not WBN will be successful in boosting the book trade has yet to be seen, however an earlier report from The Bookseller shows a promising rise in sales figures amongst the 25 titles chosen for the giveaway. Overall, the weekend had an extremely positive feel to it, and I had a great time. The sheer numbers of people at both events was extremely encouraging, and all in attendance were excited and enthusiastic about the spirit of the project, and not just getting a free book or two. As for the future, Jamie Byng has stated his ambitions that World Book Night 2012 will grow beyond the shores of the UK and Ireland, so stay tuned for next year.