So how was World Book Night for you? I had a lovely time at Forest Hill Library, taking part in a celebratory event which involved various writers reading and talking about our work, free copies of Fingersmith and Case Histories, good food and interesting wine. One of the things I liked about it was the mix: it wasn’t all about novelists, but poets, non-fiction writers, performance poets and story-tellers too.
When I first heard about Jamie Byng’s plans for a massive give-away of free books I wasn’t sure what to think, but as the day approached its merits became clearer. I fully understand the concerns of some independent booksellers that giving away books might be sending out the wrong message in the age of the free download, but I believe that anything that celebrates books and reading is a good thing. If you read a book that you’ve been given for free and you like it, you may well seek out other titles by the same author. You might borrow it from a library rather than buy it, but I don’t believe that having received the first book for free will influence that either way – if you’re someone who buys books, you’ll continue to buy them, and if you can’t afford to buy them or you don’t have room for them in your home, you’ll visit the library. I’ve done plenty of both in my time: when I was growing up my parents couldn’t afford a car or a phone, so we certainly didn’t have the money for books; as an unreconstructed bibliophile I now own thousands, even if they mostly come from charity shops. When I was young I was unemployed for a while and didn’t have enough money to do anything but visit the local library, go home and sit and read at least one novel a day. The right to free access to books is essential, and it shouldn’t be taken away by local authorities keen to save money by closing local libraries, claiming that there are others within the borough that people can just as easily use. Not everyone can drive and if you’re elderly, disabled, a young mother with a pushchair and more than one small child, or just too poor to be able to afford the bus fare, you may not be able to travel that extra couple of miles.
As I told the audience on Saturday night, I wouldn’t have been there if I hadn’t found and agent, and I wouldn’t have found an agent if I hadn’t done an MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, and how did I find out about the course? I saw a flyer in my local library, a library that’s due to close down in a couple of months.
I didn’t attend the big event in Trafalgar Square the night before as I was at the National Theatre listening to Brian Cox (the Hadron Collider ex-pop star one, not the gruff Scottish actor) discuss the science of Frankenstein with biographer Richard Holmes. My daughter had made the rather uncharitable comment that she expected most of the audience would be middle-aged women with little genuine interest in science, but she was wrong: there were people of all ages and both sexes, although I couldn’t vouch for their scientific knowledge. It was interesting to learn about early experiments that used electricity to try to reanimate bodies, but in 45 minutes they could only touch briefly on science then and now. As someone who got a ‘C’ for Chemistry ‘O’ Level and didn’t even take Physics, I do feel that my scientific knowledge is poor, but when I watch Professor Cox’s tv programmes about the stars, fascinating though they are, they make my imagination hurt. I don’t understand how he manages to be so relentlessly perky when talking – as he did in the first episode of his new series – about a time when the stars will all go out and time itself will cease to have any meaning in a cold, dark universe where nothing happens. I would have finished this post a week ago, but after watching that, blogging seemed suddenly rather futile.