“What is to me this quintessence of dust?”
So the Saturday just past, the 23rd April, was the UNESCO-designated World Book Night, as well as the birth- and deathdays of Shakespeare and Cervantes.
Now. I have Thoughts on World Book Night as it manifests itself in the UK, which I have expressed before. To cut a longish story shortish, WBN is run by the Reading Agency, and involves a large number of specially printed books (from a list of about fifteen which changes every year) being given out by a large number of volunteers, for free, to people who don’t read very much. The first year, 2011, a full million books were given out by (I think) 200,000 volunteers. This year, under 200,000 books were given out by 10,000 people.
My point being, I suppose, that it is a lovely and charitable idea; but (like many of the works of Men) it has somewhat failed of its promise.
This did not, apparently, stop me from buying a ticket to the Reading Agency’s event at the British Library on Saturday to mark the occasion, along with a slightly reluctant Circumlocutor. “It sounds like a party,” he said. “I don’t like parties.”
The event began with a panel moderated by Cathy Rentzenbrink (The Last Act of Love) featuring five past and present World Book Night authors: Dreda Say Mitchell (Geezer Girls), Holly Bourne (Am I Normal Yet?), Matt Haig (Reasons to Stay Alive), Sathnam Sanghera (The Boy With the Topknot) and Stephanie Merritt, who writes as S J Parris (Treachery).
Cathy began by asking the panellists about the role of reading in their lives. Dreda Say Mitchell talked about visiting her local library, and sneaking into the Barbican Art Gallery, and how although her family had no money they always had access to books and culture; and she read (and eventually sang) the lyrics from a Stevie Wonder song. (I have no idea which one, so please don’t ask.) Holly Bourne, in a theme common to the evening, mentioned that school English teaching made her fall out of love with reading, and that Louise Rennison and the Ace Gang made her fall back in love with it.
(As an aside: I think the assumption that Bourne and her audience made here, that all reading is intrinsically good reading and everything that stops a child reading is intrinsically bad, is worth questioning, if only because it’s a very common one that is rarely seriously examined.)
Bourne also referred to books as safe hallucinogenic drugs, and went on to make the more serious point that, while the stereotype of a reader is an introvert, drawn into themselves, her experience of reading was one of escaping out of herself. Which is an important point, about empathy, couched very subtly.
Matt Haig talked about his experience with depression, reading childhood books and rediscovering his love of story, as opposed to pretentious university novels that fuck around with time (The Sound and the Fury, I am looking at you); and he read from Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World, featuring the BFG.
Sathnam Sanghera, who wins the prize for Most Amusing Panellist, had some interesting things to say about the book as a status symbol, citing his first book purchase, The Collected Works of George Orwell, which he kept on his shelf for all to admire without ever actually reading it. (Sanghera was funny, but I also think the cultural pressures sitting behind this story are worth thinking about, especially in the context of the extremely limited diversity in the audience. It literally speaks volumes that in the heart of one of the most multicultural cities in the world I could count the POCs in the room on one hand. World Book Night is all about inclusiveness – and £20 a head to attend its flagship event is not, frankly, very inclusive.)
I can’t remember what Stephanie Merritt said, which, I’m sorry, I’m a bad blogger, but I do remember her reading from A Christmas Carol.
The next topic (oh, yes, there’s more) featured Shakespeare, the man of the night. Again, the discussion revolved around how Shakespeare is taught in schools; the consensus was “badly”, with everything from teachers laughing at unfunny jokes to introducing students to texts rather than to plays being blamed for the playwright’s infamy among schoolchildren. The idea that his plays have natural “ins” which teachers should exploit more cannily was bandied about: multicultural interpretations, “unsex me here”, Keanu Reeves. (Mmmmm.) Which is true, but also easier to say at a panel in the British Library than I imagine it is to put into practice in a noisy classroom.
There were a couple of not hugely interesting questions from the audience (mainly of the “this isn’t a question at all, just me sharing my opinion” variety, which is fine if your opinion is new and startling or even just thought-provoking) and then it was time to file over to the lobby of the Library proper, where there was indeed a Late at the Library party in full swing. (It appears that this happens on a fairly regular basis at the British Library, with a different theme each time – that’s something I’m going to keep my eye on.) The programme for the evening included music and performances of various kinds, and there was food and drink, and, let’s face it, it was a party in a library.
Ticket price included entry to the BL’s exhibition “Shakespeare in Ten Acts”, which we wandered into vaguely expecting to come out after about half an hour to eat cake and watch the performers in the excitingly lit lobby.
Which: no. “Shakespeare in Ten Acts” focuses on ten key moments in Shakespearean performance history, with displays of books and models and costumes and other shiny things, and I wanted to look at everything, which meant it took me about half an hour just to get to Act Three. (The Circumlocutor was much more sensible, and moved twice as quickly as I did, which meant he had to stop and wait for me in Act Five.) This was a pity; because by the time I had got to Act Eight, which had all sorts of interesting displays on postmodernist Shakespeare, I had had enough. It’s a well-curated and fascinating exhibition, but you do need to pace yourself.
So cake and watching performers did not, alas, happen (the Circumlocutor was disappointed to have missed the Crystals, Ben and David, who evidently do original pronunciation performances of Shakespeare) (and I’ve just realised, looking at the programme, that John Agard was there and I missed him, godsdammit) – we were kind of tired by this point, being feeble – it was still a most excellent and thought-provoking evening, with a great atmosphere. I always forget what a rich cultural resource there is in London; I’m definitely going to be looking out for more events like this.