Sunday 5 December 2010

World Book Night: One Million Free Books

I'm in a bit of a quandary here: do I applaud a great idea or do I slag it off for being badly executed? Well, most of this blog is about being nice to authors because I've read and liked their books, so let's go the other way and vent some spleen.

World Book Night is a worthy plan to promote reading amongst adults by giving away one million books. The twist is that they'll be given away by 20,000 volunteers:

Author Of The Week: Ross Thomas

"The book give-away will comprise 40,000 copies of each of the 25 carefully selected titles, to be given away by 20,000 ‘givers’, who will each distribute 48 copies of their chosen title to whomever they choose on World Book Night. The remaining books will be distributed by World Book Night itself in places that might otherwise be difficult to reach, such as prisons and hospitals."

So far, so good. Great idea to give the books away, great idea to get members of the public to act as givers. Surely, Paul, you can't object to this excellent plan? Surely, Paul, I can, because a perusal of the list of 25 books makes me want to tear my hair out. These are not great books, in the main, they are not readable (if challenging), they are prizewinners, and anyone who looks at the history of the (Man) Booker prize knows what that means...

The full list is:

Kate Atkinson - Case Histories
Margaret Atwood - The Blind Assassin
Alan Bennett - A Life Like Other People's
John le Carré - The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
Lee Child - Killing Floor
Carol Ann Duffy - The World's Wife
Mark Haddon - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Seamus Heaney - Selected Poems
Marian Keyes - Rachel's Holiday
Mohsin Hamid - The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Ben Macintyre - Agent Zigzag
Gabriel García Márquez - Love in the Time of Cholera
Yann Martel - Life of Pi
Alexander Masters - Stuart: A Life Backwards
Rohinton Mistry - A Fine Balance
David Mitchell - Cloud Atlas
Toni Morrison - Beloved
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Half of a Yellow Sun
David Nicholls - One Day
Philip Pullman - Northern Lights
Erich Maria Remarque - All Quiet on the Western Front
CJ Sansom - Dissolution
Nigel Slater - Toast
Muriel Spark - The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Sarah Waters - Fingersmith

Nigel Slater? Nigel Slater - Toast??? WTF has to be the comment, squealed out loud as the list is read. Marginally better than Gordon Ramsay: The Day I Stubbed My F****** Toe, I suppose but even the judges of this lot haven't gone that far. A favourable review by one of his cookery/journalism mates said "Nigel Slater's story contains no unusually dramatic episodes or people of national significance. His portrait of aspirant Midlands middle-class life is hardly affectionate and the events he writes about are common currency."

It took me a few goes to get through Love in the Time of Cholera and I'm a rabid reader. Okay, we're obviously avoiding dumbing down, and there's nothing for the bloke who reads on the bus each morning (bar Lee Childs) but let's be realistic -- if you're not a regular reader what chance have you of getting past page 4 of a Gabriel García Márquez novel? Great description of 19th century Cartagena? Why not put a Charles Dickens on the list instead?

The poets on the list: Heaney ok, but Duffy? Let's see one of her poems:

Stuffed by Carol Ann Duffy

I put two yellow peepers in an owl.
Wow. I fix the grin of Crocodile.
Spiv. I sew the slither of an eel.
I jerk, kick-start, the back hooves of a mule.
Wild. I hold the red rag to a bull.
Mad. I spread the feathers of a gull.

I screw a tight snarl to a weasel.
Fierce. I stitch the flippers on a seal.
Splayed. I pierce the heartbeat of a quail.

I like her to be naked and to kneel.
Tame. My motionless, my living doll.
Mute. And afterwards I like her not to tell.

EJ Thribb could do better. Now she has something to expiate -- a prissiness!

Okay, there are some worthy books there and a few that are excellent, both in themselves and in their suitability for this exercise. But, there are too many that will prove too obtuse and too many that are just plain naff (give me a copy of Rachel's Holiday and I'll shoot your first-born). This is a missed opportunity -- let's have 25 classics, or 25 good, modern(ish) novels -- yes, put a Ross Thomas in there. Let's not have this mishmash that reads like a few worthies and a bunch we had lying round the store room.

How did we get to this lot? Look at the editorial committee, chaired by James Naughtie. Amongst others we have Twitter Fry, Lemn Sissay (okay but hardly the world's greatest street poet), DBC Pierre -- Man Booker for Vernon God Little and he's done God Little since, Kamila Shamsie, who goes for literary prizes the way some Alabaman mothers push their permed eight year olds in baby beauty pageants. I wouldn't let that lot judge my shopping list.

This is a critic's list, a publisher's list, it is not a reader's list. Shame.

Website for the project

All 25 books at Amazon

Something I hadn't considered: the harm this is going to do to independent booksellers, in more ways than you might think. Have a look at World Book Night: Misguided And Misjudged on the excellent State of Independents blog.


Book Glutton said...

But which Ross Thomas would you give them?

Paul said...

Hmm, can I pick more than one? Fools In Town or Out On The Rim - the latter perhaps as I have a soft spot for Artie Wu and family.

What would you go for?

Book Glutton said...

I've read 23 of his 25 books. I've been saving Out on the Rim (so I can't comment on it other than to say maybe we shouldn't start the general public with the third installment of Wu and Durant) and The Porkchoppers for a rainy day.

Briarpatch or Missionary Stew would be my choice. Or since he's written 25 books, we can scrap their list and replace it with all 25 of his books.

Anonymous said...

The problem is it's a one size fits no-one campaign - 25 books to encourage a million to read? Libraries are a major partner, and yet it is due to happen on a Saturday night. How many libraries are open at that time? How many will have funding left at the end of what has been (to put it mildly)a trying year, to spend on opening out of hours to give away books? (Explain that one to the councillors and public whose branches are closing on March 31st.) Surely all that was needed was to beef up the adult involvement in World Book Day? Seems to me they have reinvented a wheel, but made it square...

Paul said...

Re adult involvement: it would be interesting to survey the non-reading population, see what kinds of book in their own opinion might persuade them to read.

It all comes back to the point of the exercise: it's basically a publicity stunt with the potential for good, rather than an exercise in good with the potential for publicity.

Cat (bookseller) said...

This is a great post and along the lines of the sort of complaint I have about WBN. If it really is about getting non-readers reading then why weren't the general public polled on the book that got them reading? WBN is a potentially good idea that's a completely missed opportunity.Jamie Byng says that free copies of these books will be going to prisons. Seriously? An estimated 50% - 75% of inmates struggling with literacy and numeracy and this is the list of books being waved in their face? WBN? WTF?

Paul said...

Hi Cat - exactly: I'm not sure the governor of Holloway would welcome Carol Duffy, nor Belmarsh Mohsin Hamid. Books for prisoners, yes, but books they can read indeed. Something like Prison Book Project is doing in the USA.

Welcome to the blog, by the way, and thanks for your comment, Paul

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