Tonight is World Book Night. Originally dreamed up by Jamie Byng of the hugely successful Scottish independent publishers Canongate Books, and backed by an impressively long list of interesting and influential patrons (including JK Rowling, Nick Cave, Gil Scott-Heron, Margaret Atwood, Carol Ann Duffy and Antony Gormley, to name but a few), the aim of World Book Night is really quite simple – they want to get more people reading. And they intend to do this by giving away a million books.
Yes, I suspect it would be true to say that this event is extremely good publicity for the publishing houses involved, but, cynicism aside, if World Book Night does manage to succeed in its aim of encouraging people to read more than they already do (or don’t, as the case may be), then it will have done society a service.
Because the enjoyment of a truly good book is one of those small but significant joys of human existence; a simple, lightweight and portable escape from everyday stresses, as well as an almost bottomless source of life-long learning. You can read about almost anything you could ever imagine (and a fair few things you probably couldn’t) – and you can read almost anywhere: in the bath, on the beach, waiting for the bus, on the loo, in bed, in the park, up a tree, on your sofa…
Reading is addictive; one book inevitably leads to another. And then another and another. But it’s a healthy habit to have (certainly healthier than most), and one that keeps the brain active and the imagination primed. A truly great book can be a profoundly transformative experience:
Books can be dangerous. The best ones should be labelled “This could change your life” – Helen Exley
Books can and do change lives. Books can take the reader on a journey that opens eyes to new and wonderful ideas and things. Reading can inspire. It can enrich your imagination and your knowledge. It can make you angry or sad or elated or confused or any combination of these and many other emotions – and, most importantly of all, it can really make you think about yourself and the world around you.
All of which brings me to a related point: libraries, and their central importance in creating an environment where all this can thrive. As far as public services are concerned, libraries are a vital part of every local community, which is why, in my view, the planned closure of hundreds and hundreds of local libraries all over the country really is the stupidest of all the stupid cuts that have resulted from this government’s inept and selfish attempts to reduce the deficit.
Here in this corner of west London, eight out of the eleven libraries in the borough are under threat, including several branches which have recently been the recipients of significant refurbishment. Public outrage has caused the council to postpone any immediate closures, but their interim method of saving some money by deferring book purchases just looks, to me, like delaying the inevitable, like library closures by the back door. This is just the situation in one London borough, but it should come as no surprise that library users up and down the country have been protesting against this clumsy, damaging policy.
It seems to me that neither my local council or central government really have much of a clue about modern libraries and how they actually work. For a start, a library is not just all about the books, as important as they are – alongside the reading material and the audio-visual media, it will also provide dozens of small, helpful community services like printing, photocopying, a space to study and access to newspapers, telephone directories and the internet.
Factor in easy and free access to hundreds of books, and you can immediately see that the library services as a whole are clearly of incalculable use to almost anyone in the community, both practically and intellectually. In particular, the local library can be an absolute godsend to low-income groups in society like students, young families, job hunters, the disabled, carers and the countless others who may not be able to afford an internet connection or regular book purchases.
Closing libraries would, without doubt, have a disproportionately heavy impact on low-income groups such as these, although the cuts will be felt by every single library user. We cannot afford to lose our libraries. I hate to imagine what it would be like, for example, for a new, young generation of children not being able to discover the joys of the library in the way I did, not being able to take pleasure in regular reading. These proposed closures are, fundamentally, education cuts in all but name – and we will all suffer.