So today I’ve been a World Book Night giver – and it was inspiring. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to share a love of books. I have seen people’s faces light up today as I’ve never seen before; that, for me, is what it’s all about.
It occurred to me that I hadn’t mentioned this on the blog yet, so it’s about time I did: this year, for the first time, I applied to be a World Book Night giver – and was accepted. So, on Tuesday 23rd, I’ll be around town, giving out copies of The Road Home by Rose Tremain.
How about you – are you going to be a World Book Night giver? Have you been one in the past? Any tips or interesting stories?
It’s that time again, as next year’s World Book Night has been launched. On 23 April 2013, 400,000 books will be given away in the UK by 20,000 volunteers (with another 100,000 books given internationally.
There are 20 titles in the UK this time, which are:
1. The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry (Faber)
2. Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman (RHCB)
3. The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (HarperCollins)
4. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (Hodder)
5. Casino Royale by Ian Fleming (Vintage)
6. A Little History of the World by E. H. Gombrich (Yale)
7. The White Queen by Philippa Gregory (Simon & Schuster)
8. Little Face by Sophie Hannah (Hodder)
9. Damage by Josephine Hart (Virago)
10. The Island by Victoria Hislop (Headline)
11. Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay (Picador)
12. Last Night Another Soldier… by Andy McNab (Transworld)
13. Me Before You by Jojo Moyes (Penguin)
14. Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (Walker)
15. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (Orion)
16. No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith (Little, Brown)
17. Treasure Island by R. L. Stevenson (Penguin)
18. The Road Home by Rose Tremain (Vintage)
19. Judge Dredd: The Dark Judges by John Wagner (Rebellion)
20. Why be Happy When You Could be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (Vintage)
That’s a typically eclectic selection of titles. I’ve read a few of them, and I think my first choice to give away would be The Knife of Never Letting Go, which remains one of my favourite reads from the last few years. I haven’t applied to be a World Book Night giver before, but I admire the cause, and it seems to be something people have enjoyed doing – perhaps 2013 will be the year to go for it.
A million books were given away across the UK on World Book Night last week, and I got one of them at my local branch of Waterstones. I tend to think that the ideal book for World Book Night is something that you wouldn’t ordinarily think of reading, but that looks interesting once you start to consider it – a gentle nudge away from your comfort zone, in other words.
That’s just the sort of book I received in Touching the Void, Joe Simpson’s account of his and Simon Yates’s 1985 expedition to climb Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. It’s what happened on the descent which makes the story so famous: Simpson broke his leg, and, whilst being lowered down the mountainside by Yates, got stuck in mid-air. With Simpson unable to move up or down, and Yates losing his grip, Yates decided he had to cut the rope joining the two of them. Simpson fell into a crevasse, but nevertheless beat the odds and made it back to camp, alive.
Touching the Void begins prosaically enough:
I was lying in my sleeping bag, staring at the light filtering through the red and green fabric of the dome tent. Simon was snoring loudly, occasionally twitching in his dream world. We could have been anywhere. There is a peculiar anonymity about being in tents. (p. 15)
That tent will, naturally, assume vital importance later on; in a neat mirroring, the familiar light inside the tent at the beginning becomes an alien sight when Simpson is approaching it from the outside, in desperation, towards the end. This is one of several examples in the book of the same thing taking on different qualities at different times – the mountain scenery is by turns hostile and welcoming, for instance.
The passage I’ve quoted there also contains the first of Simpson’s observations about the peculiarities of climbing. I’ve never been up a mountain myself (though I have done my Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and so have some experience of outdoor activity), so perhaps I didn’t connect personally with the descriptions of climbing as I might otherwise have; but this exchange did strike a chord:
‘What shall it be then?’ Simon held up two foil bags. ‘Moussaka or Turkey Supreme?’
‘Who gives a toss! They’re both disgusting!’
‘Good choice. We’ll have the Turkey.’
Two brews of passion fruit and a few prunes later we settled back for sleep. (p. 39)
It’s the odd combination of foods and flavours which brings home the reality of having to eat what you’ve got, and of eating for energy rather than taste – a sense of how one’s priorities change on a mountain. We also see the kind of mentality that may be needed: Simpson tells the story at one point of how, on a previous expedition, Yates saw two unfamiliar climbers fall to their deaths from the same mountain he was climbing; when he returned to camp, says Simpson, Yates ‘had sat numb’, turning the incident over and over in his mind; but, the next day, ‘he was his normal self again: an experience absorbed, shelved in his memory, understood and accepted, and left at that’ (p. 64). The capacity to put even the worst experiences behind you can, this suggests, be useful – even vital – to mountaineers.
Yates’s capacity to do just this is tested to its limit when he’s faced with cutting the rope; as Simpson shows (in passages written from Yates’s viewpoint), this was both an impossible choice and, really, no choice at all. As he’s making his own way down the mountain, assuming (quite reasonably) that Simpson is dead, Yates veers back and forth over the question of how to describe what happened, whether to feel guilt or resignation. Simpson creates a fine portrait of an extreme moral dilemma.
But it’s Simpson’s account of his time alone and injured on the mountain which live most vividly in my memory. The description of his plummeting into the crevasse, then lying there in the dark, is horrifying; and we feel Simpson’s pain and frustration (as far as that’s possible, of course) at every slow step of his journey down. It makes his survival seem all the more remarkable.
This edition of Touching the Void includes a section written in 2003, after the making of the film version. As part of this, Simpson describes how he returned to Siula Grande and played himself in reconstructions of the incident. This seems so strange, I can’t begin to imagine what it might have been like, nor find the words to describe how I responded to reading about it. Simpson himself closes the book reflecting on how his life has changed in such unexpected ways:
Life can deal you an amazing hand. Do you play it steady, bluff like crazy or go all in? I’ll never know (p. 215).
So, Touching the Void ends with a question we might all have cause to consider at some point – and it has opened a window on an extraordinary human experience. A fine book for World Book Night.
This book fulfils the Travel category (though ‘travel writing’ seems an inadequate way to describe Touching the Void!) of the Mixing It Up Challenge 2012.
This year, World Book Night asked people to nominate their top ten books, to create a list that would feed into the selection of next year’s titles to be given away. That list, the Top 100, was announced today, and here it is; in time-honoured book-blogging tradition, I’m emboldened the books I’ve read.
The 2012 Long List – ordered by number of votes:
1 To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee
2 Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen
3 The Book Thief Markus Zusak
4 Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte
5 The Time Traveler’s Wife Audrey Niffenegger
6 The Lord of the Rings J. R. R. Tolkien
7 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams
8 Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte
9 Rebecca Daphne Du Maurier
10 The Kite Runner Khaled Hosseini
11 American Gods Neil Gaiman
12 A Thousand Splendid Suns Khaled Hosseini
13 Harry Potter Adult Hardback Boxed Set J. K. Rowling
14 The Shadow of the Wind Carlos Ruiz Zafon
15 The Hobbit J. R. R. Tolkien
16 One Day David Nicholls
17 Birdsong Sebastian Faulks
18 The Help Kathryn Stockett
19 Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell
20 Good Omens Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
21 The Notebook Nicholas Sparks
22 The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Stieg Larsson
23 The Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood
24 The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald
25 Little Women Louisa M. Alcott
26 Memoirs of a Geisha Arthur Golden
27 The Lovely Bones Alice Sebold
28 Atonement Ian McEwan
29 Room Emma Donoghue
30 Catch-22 Joseph Heller
31 We Need to Talk About Kevin Lionel Shriver
32 His Dark Materials Philip Pullman
33 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin Louis De Bernieres
34 The Island Victoria Hislop
35 Neverwhere Neil Gaiman
36 The Poisonwood Bible Barbara Kingsolver
37 The Catcher in the Rye J. D. Salinger
38 Chocolat Joanne Harris
39 Never Let Me Go Kazuo Ishiguro
40 The Five People You Meet in Heaven Mitch Albom
41 One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel Garcia Marquez
42 Animal Farm George Orwell
43 The Pillars of the Earth Ken Follett
44 The Eyre Affair Jasper Fforde
45 Tess of the D’Urbervilles Thomas Hardy
46 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Roald Dahl
47 I Capture the Castle Dodie Smith
48 The Wasp Factory Iain Banks
49 Life of Pi Yann Martel
50 The Road Cormac McCarthy
51 Great Expectations Charles Dickens
52 Dracula Bram Stoker
53 The Secret History Donna Tartt
54 Small Island Andrea Levy
55 The Secret Garden Frances Hodgson Burnett
56 Lord of the Flies William Golding
57 Persuasion Jane Austen
58 A Prayer for Owen Meany John Irving
59 Notes from a Small Island Bill Bryson
60 Watership Down Richard Adams
61 Night Watch Terry Pratchett
62 Brave New World Aldous Huxley
63 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time Mark Haddon
64 Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Susanna Clarke
65 The Color Purple Alice Walker
66 My Sister’s Keeper Jodi Picoult
67 The Stand Stephen King
68 Cloud Atlas David Mitchell
69 The Master and Margarita Mikhail Bulgakov
70 Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy
71 Cold Comfort Farm Stella Gibbons
72 Frankenstein Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
73 The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society Mary Ann Shaffer
74 The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde
75 Gone with the Wind Margaret Mitchell
76 The Graveyard Book Neil Gaiman
77 The Woman in White Wilkie Collins
78 The Princess Bride William Goldman
79 A Suitable Boy Vikram Seth
80 Perfume Patrick Suskind
81 The Count of Monte Cristo Alexandre Dumas
82 The God of Small Things Arundhati Roy
83 Middlemarch George Eliot
84 Dune Frank Herbert
85 Wolf Hall Hilary Mantel
86 Stardust Neil Gaiman
87 Lolita Vladimir Nabokov
88 Midnight’s Children Salman Rushdie
89 Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone J. K. Rowling
90 Shantaram Gregory David Roberts
91 The Remains of the Day Kazuo Ishiguro
92 Possession: A Romance A. S. Byatt
93 Tales of the City Armistead Maupin
94 Kafka on the Shore Haruki Murakami
95 The Magus John Fowles
96 The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas John Boyne
97 A Fine Balance Rohinton Mistry
98 Alias Grace Margaret Atwood
99 Norwegian Wood Haruki Murakami
100 The Wind-up Bird Chronicle Haruki Murakami
So, that’s 22 titles that I’ve read (and I’ve just started The Great Gatsby, which will make 23), which is a higher percentage than I usually manage with this kind of list.
As for the list itself: it’s the typical mixture of established classics, more recent favourites, and talked-about titles from the past year or two, that one might expect — and, from that point of view, I think it’s not a bad list. Quite remarkable showing for Neil Gaiman, though, I must say, with a full five titles (including one co-authorship) on the list.
And if I were going to choose one of these books to give away? I think I’d go for Notes from a Small Island.
Yesterday was World Book Night, an event organised by Jamie Byng (publisher of Canongate Books), in which 20,000 people across the UK and Ireland gave out 48 specially-printed copies of a favourite book – a million books in total. BBC Two devoted two-and-a-half hours of its programming last night to Culture Show specials on books, beginning with A Million Books For Free, a half-hour documentary about World Book Night itself; later in the evening, there were five-minute-long live visits to World Book Night events in Glasgow, Manchester and London. These programmes showed us people with lots of enthusiasm for books, and some pretty inspiring stories of what particular books meant to different people.
I knew that the evening was also going to include a film about popular fiction, and one about the Culture Show’s list of twelve new literary novelists, so I was expecting that there’d be some sort of “populist vs literary” tone to proceedings. What we got, though, was something stranger: three programmes which presented three very different, almost completely separate, views of the book world.
The Books We Really Read was an odd, disjointed documentary which didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be, or what it wanted to argue. The one-line pitch of it would go something like this: lifelong reader of literary fiction Sue Perkins set out to investigate bestselling fiction, with a particular focus on crime, romance and thrillers; and certainly, from the title and the opening commentary (“I’m here [at an airport bookshop] to unearth a dirty secret”), I was anticipating a snobbish, let’s-laugh-at-this-stuff-and-the-people-who-read-it kind of film. And there was an element of that, but there was also a genuine enthusiasm for bestselling fiction; the trouble was, the programme couldn’t let go of either of those approaches.
There were contradictions in the programme from the start, of which it didn’t seem aware: Perkins didn’t have much experience of reading bestselling fiction, and wanted to be able to understand what made it so popular – yet she liked Agatha Christie (whose work was treated at some length), and explained eloquently what it was that she liked so much, which was not all that different from what other contributors said about other bestselling authors. The highbrow world of judging the Booker Prize was (it was implied) far removed from bestsellerdom; yet there, clearly visible on the bestseller shelves, was Wolf Hall, the very novel to which Perkins and her fellow judges had given the Booker in 2009. To my mind, this points to a rather more complex picture than the programme was prepared to contemplate.
The actual treatment of the three genres was awkward, with each one being surveyed in a different way; and the reading of novel extracts in an arch tone of voice sat rather at odds with the positive tone which the programme sought to take towards bestsellers as it went along. Some of the comments made by the authors interviewed made me wince (such as Felix Francis talking about continuing his father Dick’s legacy of horse-racing thrillers, and implying that writing fiction was something anyone could do, because “you make it all up”); but there were also some useful contributions – Ian Rankin made one of the most interesting when he suggested that crime fiction was good at examining society, and that it had not done itself any favours by taking a detour into amatueur-sleuth territory; there was no time to examine these thoughts any further, though.
What makes a bestseller, then? In the end, the film did not seem to get much further than “a compelling plot”. (What came across to me in the interviews with readers was that the actual book seemed less important to them than what the book facilitated, whether that’s escape, or the chance to solve a puzzle, or whatever.) Perkins ended the programme by suggesting that it would be good if literary and genre fiction borrowed more from each other’s toolkits (another thought that needed expanding: Perkins said that most of the novels she read for the Booker didn’t have a plot – I don’t recognise that in most of the literary fiction I read). First of all, the content of the documentary didn’t seem to me to lead up to that conclusion; second, this already happens – in both directions.
The Books We Really Read couldn’t seem able to decide whether to celebrate or mock its subject, and ended up doing both at times, but wasn’t terribly convincing at doing either. It hinted at a more complex and fluid (and more interesting!) literary landscape than the one it painted, and wound up frustratingly short of being truly insightful.
On to the final programme of the night, New Novelists: 12 of the Best, in which John Mullan introduces the list of twelve British debut novelists he and and a panel of fellow-judges selected from 57 submissions made by literary publishers. This enterprise has already caused something of a stir in the corner of the internet to which I pay most attention, partly because the list itself is somewhat lacking in diversity (see here for my own take on that issue), and partly because of a specious article on literary fiction published by Mullan in the Guardian last week (see Maureen Kincaid Speller’s posts here and here for a good overview of this).
The film did not have the tiresome snobbery of Mullan’s article, but what it really lacked was proper context. Segments on the twelve chosen authors were interspersed with a history of… well, not so much literary fiction as of lists of literary novelists. Mullan concentrated on Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists lists, but said precious little about how they were received by general readers; of course the evening’s films were made in isolation but, given that we had just seen a documentary founded on the assumption that literary fiction and bestseller status were pretty much mutually exclusive, one could be forgiven for asking how the landscape presented by Mullan related to the one presented by Perkins.
Mullan also touched on the rise of creative writing courses, noting that a third of the submissions he had received were by creative writing graduates. What effect this might have had on the novels themselves was, however left largely unexamined, aside from a comment made by one of the judges at the very end that many felt similar (in what ways, and whether this was truly detrimental, remained unsaid). Neither was it explored whether this situation was really all that different from the likes of Ian McEwan, Rose Tremain and Kazuo Ishiguro being creative writing graduates twenty or thirty years ago.
The programme was on better form when dealing with the individual novelists and their books (the writers chosen were David Abbott, Jenn Ashworth, Ned Beauman, Deborah Kay Davies, Samantha Harvey, Adam Haslett, Rebecca Hunt, Stephen Kelman, Jim Powell, Anna Richards, Eleanor Thom and Evie Wyld). The film was at its most engaging when the judges were discussing the books, and the author interviews were, by and large, also interesting. As for my opinion of the books on the list: I’ve read three, found one excellent, one good, and the other left me cold – but that’s the way with such lists; there are certainly other books on there that I want to read.
For all its flaws, New Novelists was a rare chance for debut writers to get some coverage on television; but the way it was presented made it seem closed off from the wider literary world. There was a passion for what bestselling books could offer somewhere in The Books We Really Read, but it was buried so far under the gimmicks of the format that it became hard to see clearly, and again there was a sense of disconnection. I’d rather take the view of the literary landscape shown by the material about World Book Night itself, the one where all kinds of people read all kinds of books, and the enthusiasm of a reader – who may be a learned academic, or a person who’s never read a book before in their life, or someone in between – for a book they love is what counts the most.