Give away one million books over the course of one night and all for free? – Surely this was the stuff of madness….But, this idea from Jamie Byng had clearly captured the imagination of book-lovers across the country with thousands signing up to be volunteer book-givers of a selected novel from the range of twenty five titles on offer. Each lucky giver would receive forty eight copies of their chosen title to distribute to whom they chose on the night, and I was one of those selected and the title I had to collect and distribute was Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories.
I was over the moon to manage to grab a pass for the event as soon as they went online the previous Saturday as it was to be a ‘wristband-wearer’ only event and rushed into London early on Friday 4th March to be able to collect my wristband prior to the event. I was slightly surprised that, at Waterstones Piccadilly, I was also given a limited Antony Gormley designed t-shirt celebrating the event, as I had heard they would only be available to the first thousand to collect their wristbands and the collection desk had been open for over a day already at that stage. Then, after wandering around the perimeter of the square for a while watching the first visitors arrive, the gates were open for those who had wristbands to enter. Fifteen to twenty minutes later and the security team announced that anyone else could also enter the square – clearly it wasn’t filling fast enough.
But, their worries were short lived. After a short period of music being played by the on stage dj (looking somewhat out of place in the sitting room backdrop) and eight people taking seats alongside him (they turned out to be chosen givers, selected to have stage seats – lucky beggars were likely a bit warmer than the rest of us!), Graham Norton was introduced by Jamie Byng as our host for the event, the sun had gone down, tourists and those leaving work entered the square and filled it and the evening got underway.
I guess in a way this was like Live Aid for readers, a totally eclectic mix of readers and readings, all unlikely to appeal to everyone in isolation, but all working so well as a whole and played to a varied audience of all ages, races and backgrounds – all there just to celebrate a love of books, of writing and of reading. DBC Pierre kicked the proceedings off with a reading from Bleak House, followed up by Sarah Waters reading from her own title to be given away during World Book Night, Fingersmith. Next up was Alan Bennett and, if you’d told me beforehand that I would enjoy his reading and be moved by it more than any of the others, I would not have believed you, but the reading he gave was so impassioned and sad although tinged with humour that I am now determined to seek out his book, A Life like other Peoples – which is what World Book Night is all about, I guess, it makes you consider a title or an author you may never have picked up before. Bennett also had the quote of the night and one I have seen repeated since many times on twitter (me being guilty of posting it as soon as he’d said it), when he described the closure of libraries as a terrible thing, he spoke of his love of libraries as a child and said that ‘closing libraries is child abuse!’
We then had Rupert Everett reading Graham Greene, Monica Ali reading from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and then Mark Haddon giving an impassioned speech about books and libraries before reading from Stuart, A Life Backwards.
And then it was the turn of a non-author to take the stage. With Graham Norton announcing him as ‘the inventor of the bicycle’ Mayor Boris Johnson stepped onto the stage to a mix of applause and booing to read a classic hangover scene from Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. Shuffling off the stage, he was followed by Lemn Sissay reading in the most powerful performance of the evening from Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Margaret Atwood took the stage next to great applause and read from her Blind Assassin, after a good wise-crack about story telling between men and women. Again, another title I wouldn’t have picked to read, but will do so now.
Edna O’Brien read Plunder, from her new short story collection, Saints and Sinners and then I lost myself somewhat in the reading by Tracy Chevalier of Beloved – I think that lady could read me bedtime stories any time, loved her voice.
And then, another surprise reader, this time it was Suggs from Madness reading some John Betjeman with David Nichols following on to read from One Day – saying he never thought he’d hear the words ‘you’re on after Suggs’.
It was the turn of actors next, with Hayley Atwell and Stanley Tucci (both due to be on our screens soon in Captain America – The First Avenger) reading a duet of Cole Porter’s Let’s Fall in Love which was in turn romantic and funny. And the the mood darkened for the booming voice adopted by Phillip Pullman for the reading of a section of his Northern Lights as one of the armoured bears – powerful stuff. He was followed by Nick Cave reading a small section from Lolita by Vladamir Nabokov before the evening wrapped with the last reading – superbly played out by its author when John le Carre read a section from The Spy who came in from the Cold to the thousands of us who stood chilled to the bone in the square.
And then, with a thank you from Graham Norton for us all being restrained enough not to bur our books to attempt to keep warm, the early giving began.
Those of us who had books to give were asked to bring a few along so we could kick off the proceedings and I parted with three copies of Case Histories to some happy recipients and was also very pleased to be given a copies of Mark Haddon’s and Phillip Pullman’s books to bring home.
I personally think the event went off incredibly well, for people to stand for so long in such cold conditions, and just listen to words being read, no action, no dramatic movement, just words. The chimes of nearby clocks, the screams of police cars and the squeal of bus brakes couldn’t penetrate the calm and the concentration within the square and, if my feeling of wanting to rush across the road to Waterstones and start buying books, lots of books, was in any way replicated in others there, then I am sure the whole event will have the required effect – getting people to read, read more and read a variety of books.
Keith B Walters (who on World Book Night discovered that giving away books and talking to people in a coffee shop about why they should read Case Histories was a lot easier than trying to approach about fifty percent of people of the street, who clearly thought my family and I were trying to draw people into some religious cult :) )
Roll on World Book Day 2012….