April 5, 2019
The Netherlands swaps train tickets for books—for one day, at least
by Tom Clayton
Not content with being world leaders in many of the finer things in life (art, architecture, cheese, beer, flowers, bicycles, chips with mayonnaise), last week was Boekenweek (“book week”) in the Netherlands. Echt? Echt.*
It’s a week—or more accurately, about ten days—during which the Dutch are encouraged to read, talk about, and attend events about, books. Each year, a Dutch author is also commissioned to write a new work for the festival, known as the boekenweekgeschenk (book week gift), which is given away by bookshops to anyone buying a book in Dutch or signing up to a library during the week. The festivities culminate each year with the prestigious boekenbal, an invitation-only ball attended by authors and publishers.
Boekenweek has been running since 1932, initially as part of a drive to save the written word from the evils of radio and cinema. These days, it is more generally a celebration of Dutch publishing, with big names like Cees Nooteboom and Salman Rushdie—plus rising stars like Tommy Wieringa and Esther Gerritsen—all contributing boekenweekgeschenks in recent years.
At the turn of the century, Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS), the Dutch rail company that sponsors Boekenweek, introduced a scheme to make rail travel free on the Sunday of the festival to anyone who produces a copy of that year’s free book—2019’s was Jas Van Belofte by Jan Siebelink—to ticket inspectors. As reported by Jon Stone in The Independent this week, the “books for train travel” initiative is now in its 18th year, and shows no sign of waning in popularity. A statement from NS read “NS has a warm heart for reading, because reading is one of the favourite ways to spend time on the train.” And their official website refreshingly puts the benefits of reading front and centre:
“Travelling by train and reading go hand in hand. When you travel on the train, you can take time out for yourself, with a book or the newspaper. Where else can you do that nowadays? 75% of train passengers bring along something to read for a good reason.”
See that, literally every other rail company? These guys know what they’re doing.
All of which is yet another reason to salute our Dutch friends. Wish me luck later as I try to board the Tube with just a dog-eared copy of Brighton Rock and see how far I get.
Tom Clayton is publishing executive at Melville House UK.