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Saturday, March 05, 2011

What price World Book Night in the Can't Be Arsed Society?

If the various pro-book initiatives we've seen this week are anything to go by, authors have no more business pronouncing on how the public should behave and public policy should be shaped than rock stars or footballers. They sound every bit as much like naive sixth formers in an overheated debate. First Alan Bennett likens the closure of libraries to "child abuse". (He should read the most sensible contribution to this debate, from author and library campaigner Anthony Horowitz, who indicated a way forward for school libraries without avoiding the unpalatable truth that public library use has declined by a third in the last five years.) Then Philip Pullman, speaking in favour of the scheme whereby a million books are going to be given away, says "give books to people and they enjoy them and go and buy more books." (Tell that last one to the record business, who found that giving away CDs with mass market newspapers depressed the artists sales in some cases.)

Both seem classic illustrations of the shortcomings of this whole debate. The pious pronouncements at the top don't match the actual behaviour on the ground. People's disinclination to read books is not because they don't have access to them. It's because they can't be arsed. This doesn't change because you have further pandered to their indolence by rushing up and putting a book in their hands. Furthermore, the declining handful of independent book shops complain, not without reason, that the last thing we should be doing is giving books away, thereby adding even further to the perception that a book, if it costs you anything, ought to be about as much as a bottle of supermarket wine.

In the attention economy the actual book is neither here not there. Most of the people who are being given books today have got loads of unread books at home. What they lack is the will to read them. This is because they have persuaded themselves that their lives are somehow too busy to allow reading time. Oddly enough, they don't have any trouble making time for TV. A BARB survey just found that while the average Briton claims to watch TV for 20 hours a week the true figure is nearer thirty.

Tonight BBC-2 is all about World Book Night. Lots of well-known, good-hearted people will be popping up on your screen talking about how much they love reading. Wouldn't they be better off just taking a leaf out of what the BBC used to do in the 50s, which was shut down for an hour after Children's Hour to allow parents to put their children to bed? Impossibly quaint, I know, but at least it made the point that there were some things that listening and viewing simply got in the way of. They should have a Reading Hour in which they replace their normal output with a caption saying "Read A Book. Now." Obviously most people won't, much like most students and lecturers spend most of their Reading Weeks fornicating or pruning their roses, but at least it makes the point that you should.

So tonight I will not be watching the BBC's programming about World Book Night. I shall go in the other room and read a book. I urge you to join me.