You may have been aware of World Book Day (Friday) and World Book Night (Saturday, don’t ask me why) happening in the UK. Yesterday was the day that a million free books were going to be distributed by volunteers across the country. I’d applied for my share of 48 books, and had chosen Sarah Waters’ novel, Fingersmith. My intention was to give them out across college, as it struck me as a good vacation novel for the students – literary enough to satisfy an intellectual mind but also perfectly accessible and a cracking good read. I’d sent out emails to all groups in college during the week, the staff, the fellows and the students, saying I’d give out books from the JCR (the common room for students) on Saturday afternoon. And I’d fixed up with the President of the JCR to meet him on Saturday with a couple of strapping young men to collect the boxes from the bookstore.
Well, things did not pan out quite as I had planned.
Yesterday the weather was abysmal – freezing cold with a persistent mizzly rain. The kind of day to be indoors reading a book, certainly, but not out on the streets giving them away. I hung about the porter’s lodge, waiting for the JCR President and got into conversation with the porter there, who accepted my offer of a book once we’d got them and started to tell me about all the operas he’d seen, thus making me wonder once again about the secret life of porters. Anyway, after ten minutes of this, the porter suggested I try to find the President in his rooms, and indeed, skeptical as I was, he turned out to be there and instantly apologetic that he had forgotten all about me. Now, the JCR President is a sweetie, a very charming Asian lad who is one of the few people on the planet thinner than I am. With him was a small, short boy, who he introduced as someone who could help carry boxes. Well, I admit I had my doubts about this, as I felt I could have slung either one of them over my shoulder and carried him to the bookstore myself, which is not a thought that often crosses my mind. In fact, when we arrived there, the woman at the information desk looked us up and down and murmured ‘strapping young men’ in a tone heavily laced with irony. But the boxes weren’t too bad, and being nicely brought up boys they both took one and left me to do the opening of doors. ‘You probably find it hard to believe,’ said the short boy, awakening from the deep silence he’d been in up until then, ‘but the JCR President and I used to do weights together’. To which I replied, ‘Goodness me!’ like the worst kind of maiden aunt, but it seemed far more polite than fervent agreement.
Well, my next miscalculation was to assume that the JCR in college was a bustling, happening place. We arrived in the deathly hush of a completely dead Saturday afternoon. I knew Saturday was a bad day to do anything in college, because the staff and fellows are conspicuously absent and the whole place has a Marie Celeste air about it. The JCR is a typical sort of room – a pool table, on which we put the boxes, drinks machines, scruffy chairs, and a big widescreen television, playing the cricket to an empty house. But it was smelly and had the profoundly unloved air of a communal space that no one uses. Two boys were there, idling time away; what they were doing I have no idea, although they were barefoot, which led us instantly into a discussion of the surprising fact that it is forbidden to go barefoot in the university library. Now why? If you were to kick a stack of books barefoot, I am pretty sure I know who would come off worse. So, I had now collected four boys and two boxes of books and absolutely no interest in World Book Night and Fingersmith whatsoever. I was beginning to realize that a new plan would be necessary.
It was obvious after about five minutes that I could have sat in the JCR all afternoon and not seen another soul. No one was going to come to get a book. But the joy of students is that they think and respond to questions, so when I asked them where else in college I should leave books, they came up with some very good suggestions. We trooped off with handfuls of books to the buttery, or the student cafeteria, and propped them up on the counters. I felt I ought to leave some explanatory notices, so we came away and one of my helpers fetched some paper and I wrote FREE BOOK GIVEAWAY several times over. Of course when I went back to the buttery the staff had just locked up, and although one man returned with a huge bunch of keys, he couldn’t find the key that fit the lock and I ended up sliding the signs under the door and pointing towards the piles of books (none of the kitchen staff speak any of the languages I do). It was just that kind of afternoon, you know? And then I pressed copies on my helpers, who had been delightful and helpful and enlivened an otherwise disappointing afternoon, and took the second box off and distributed them in places about college, hoping that across the weekend, people would come and take them away.
I took my last copy and gave it to the opera-loving porter, who had had sufficient time to feel uncertain about the transaction. ‘It’s not hard is it?’ he said. ‘I won’t have to know anything about Greek philosophy or something to understand it?’ Of course not!’ I replied, rather more testily than is my wont. ‘It’s just a Victorian thriller.’ He couldn’t quite grasp the concept of a giveaway, though, and wanted to press a college calendar on me as fair exchange. When I got back home to Mister Litlove I sighed and said ‘I gave copies of a novel about lesbians to four young men and one old man, none of whom had any idea of what they were getting. I do not feel that I have served the cause of literature this afternoon.’ And Mister Litlove gave me a speaking look and said, ‘You really think the young men would mind?’ And well, he did have a point there.
But what the afternoon had impressed upon me most forcibly was my own mistaken frame of expectations. I had thought that people would want free stuff. And in this I was quite wrong. They don’t want it. I mean, they’ll take it away for the most part without complaint if you give it to them. But that’s not the same as wanting it. If someone other than myself had been offering free books in college, I would have fetched one. But then I really love books and the thought of all those orphans needing homes would have touched my heart. What it boils down to in the end is that we have an absolute surfeit of entertainment in the modern world. No one has to put themselves out much to find distraction. Giving books to people may encourage some to read, for sure, but it may equally result in books lying around without arousing any particular interest until they are put in the recycling. Free often means without value – not a lovely gift. Not unless you are giving things to people who really need them, because otherwise they will have to do without. And there, perhaps, I made another error of judgement. I should have thought of a community of people who really needed books because they have none, rather than assuming that students like books and might be pleased with more.
I was thinking about what sells non-essential goods nowadays and it seems to me that three factors make for prime motivation: curiosity, celebrity and compulsion. If you are really curious about a book everyone’s discussing, well, that might make you buy it. If the literary world took on a glaze of glamour and celebrity, well, that would draw effective marketing attention to it. And if books were considered to be something habit-forming that you couldn’t do without, like booze or cigarettes, then that would increase consumption of them. For a while now I have thought that the problem with books is that, unlike any other form of entertainment, they invite us, sometimes casually, often subtly, to be wise. And that makes for a profound ambivalence in their audience. Virtue rarely sells. If we believed that books were dangerous, that they led readers into thinking in risky ways, or that they were tremendously self-indulgent and would stop readers from going down the gym, or that they were fattening or immoral or subversive, then we might sell more of them to people who wouldn’t otherwise read. If I had clutched my copies of Fingersmith to my chest and said to my young, male helpers, oh no! This book contains scenes of girl-on-girl action and I cannot possibly be so remiss as to let you read it. But I’m leaving a pile of copies here with a sign saying strictly for women only, and now I’m walking away….. Would they have fallen on the books then as the starving fall on loaves of bread? Who knows. I very much admire the principle behind World Book Night and I’m sure most people did much better with their giveaways than I did. But my experience left me unconvinced that giving books away is the answer to encouraging people to read.