Where’s the world in World Book Night?


Tonight is a big night from for booklovers in my part of the planet. Following on from the original date of World Book Day (marking the anniversary of the deaths of Shakespeare and Cervantes), World Book Night is the time when bibliophiles in the UK, Ireland and the US give away free copies of some popular titles in an effort to encourage reluctant readers to get into stories.

There’s a serious point behind it: with 35 per cent of adults in the UK claiming not to read for pleasure, there is a huge group of people for whom books are a closed, er, book. It’s great that tonight might give some of them a chance to discover what they’re missing.

All the same, I can’t help being disappointed when I look at the list of the 20 books that volunteers in the UK will be distributing this evening. Though the genres vary from classic crime fiction in the shape of Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral to John Boyne’s Young Adult Holocaust novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and from former SAS sergeant Andy McNab’s memoir Today Everything Changes to Sathnam Sanghera’s The Boy with the Topknot, an account of growing up in the Punjabi community in Wolverhampton, there is not a single translated novel to be found on the list. Unlike previous years, all the books are by authors who write in English – most of whom are British, with the odd Irish and American wordsmith thrown in for good measure.

It’s a similar story when you look at the US WBN list, although there is one Spanish-language work in the mix: Puerto Rican author Esmeralda Santiago’s Cuando Era Puertorriqueña, which is also being given away in both Spanish and English.

According to the WBN UK website, this year’s selection was arrived at by an ‘expert editorial committee’, which looked for ‘good, enjoyable, highly readable books with strong compelling narratives [and] … a really wide variety as what will inspire one person will turn another off’.

I have no problem with that. I’m with Samuel Johnson in the belief that reading any book is better than reading none. ‘I am always for getting a boy forward in his learning; for that is a sure good,’ wrote the 18th century man of letters. ‘I would let him first read any English book which happens to engage his attention; because you have done a great deal when you have brought him to have entertainment from a book. He’ll get a better book afterwards.’

The one point on which I disagree with both Johnson and the WBN committee is that this has to be an ‘English’ book. If you want to give people a gripping crime novel, why not put a bestselling Jo Nesbo on the list or the latest translated French thriller? If it’s Holocaust fiction you’re after, why not pick from the fine array of German-language novels on the subject or plump for Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize-winning Blooms of Darkness – I certainly can’t think of a more intriguing premise than that of a Jewish boy being hidden in a brothel throughout the war.

The problem seems to be that those in charge of World Book Night have got so hung up on the issue of engaging non-readers with books that they have forgotten the world. Perhaps they are afraid that the world itself might prove another obstacle to someone picking a story up.

They could be right. But if they don’t give potential readers the choice, we’ll never know.

Instead, for now, the ‘world’ represented on both sides of the Atlantic this World Book Night will be a very narrow, inward-looking one; a place where the only stories non-readers will be offered are those written in the language they have been speaking all along.

What translated fiction would you choose to give away this World Book Night? Leave a comment and let me know…

Photo by wsilver

22 responses

  1. I’m with you on this. Well, if I have the liberty to give away a translated fiction, my favorite would definitely be The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson. Not a serious fiction, but one worth reading for.

    • Thanks. No I haven’t, although I did hear earlier from someone who had discussed it with them when the list was announced. It would be interesting to hear their reasons for keeping the list to Anglophone authors

  2. Embers Sandor Marai – Hungarian writer

    The tartar steppe Dino Buzzati – Italian novelist

  3. Peru, Spanish: The Storyteller, Mario Vargas Llosa (trans. Helen Lane)
    Haiti, French: A Woman Named Solitude, André Schwarz-Bart (trans. Ralph Manheim)
    Norway, Norwegian: Kristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset (trans. Tiina Nunnally – she also translated Smilla’s Sense of Snow)

    There has to be a heaven – the only way I’ll be able to read all the wonderful books written throughout time and the world. Perhaps I’ll be able to read them all in their original language!

    • Thanks – yes. I love Mario Vargas Llosa and Kristin Lavransdatter, although I wonder if its length would be a bit offputting for people not used to reading? It is a great read, though.

  4. I would offer Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, or Agua Viva by Clarice Lispector. If we were to chose a book of poetry, rather than prose, I would vote for Pablo Neruda’s Canto General or maybe Here and/or Monologue of a Dog by Wislawa Szymborska. (You know, I’m finding it harder to choose just one book of poetry than just one book of prose.)

      • Just a brief note of gratitude: given the time limits implied in your blog title, I have been concerned that there would be no further activity here–after such a fertile project. I suppose we all move one–perhaps especially if we are writers–but I am grateful nevertheless that you have not abandoned these pages.

  5. Reblogged this on Blue Islands, Blue as Ink and commented:
    I would offer Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, or Agua Viva by Clarice Lispector. If we were to chose a book of poetry, rather than prose, I would vote for Pablo Neruda’s Canto General or maybe Here and/or Monologue of a Dog by Wislawa Szymborska. (You know, I’m finding it harder to choose just one book of poetry than just one book of prose.)

  6. I just began to follow your blog because while I talk a good game and criticize people in my mind about reading more, and more consistently for pleasure, it’s harder than I thought it would be. There are several and complex reasons.

    Now I clicked about one week too late finding out about World Book Night! Hey, for an underemployed man, finding great books for free… That’s a no brainer!

    If I keep reading your stuff, then maybe you’ll nudge back on to the well-read path?


  7. Anything by Bohumil Hrabal to represent Czech literature; and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Leskov. I can’t believe how little known the book is, considering the fact that it has been adapted into a famous opera.

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