Today is World Book Day (WBD) – an annual celebration of all things bookish that sees libraries, classrooms and bookshops all over the country come to life with the chatter of book-lovers, much-loved authors sharing writing tips and costumed characters from popular fiction. Now in its seventeenth year, WBD has become part of our literary heritage – and not just as a reading frenzy for those who already love books (though it is that, too), but also as a powerful tool for boosting literacy.
Recognised in the UK and Ireland on the first Thursday in March and around the world six weeks later, on April 23rd – a date that weighs heavy with literary significance, not least as the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and death – the event is an international phenomenon designed to get people excited about reading.
Its social and cultural value is clear from the support of UNESCO, which describes the day as “a worldwide tribute to books and their authors”. And that’s really what it is – thousands of book-related events take place all over the world to mark the occasion. It’s a great opportunity for bibliophiles everywhere to renew their love of literature, and also for youngsters and adults who are yet to discover the pleasures of reading to be inspired.
Reading in the digital age
That society enthusiastically embraces the written word on WBD is a sign that in our highly technological world, reading hasn’t lost its appeal. In many ways, in fact, the digital boom can be seen to have encouraged reading and writing, with eReading devices and literacy-based websites boosting accessibility to content, the productivity of publishers and, for many, an appetite for reading.
Perhaps this is because the profoundly meaningful, timeless nature of great literature – or, more generally, of storytelling – offers an antidote to our throwaway, digital culture. Reading, in this day and age, allows us to slow down, calm down, step into the past or imagine the future, ponder the lives of others and learn lifelong lessons; in other words, through books we can hold onto a little piece of permanency in an increasingly transient world.
Despite this modern-day explosion of content and the appeal of a quiet read, however, literacy in the UK is lagging behind other countries. Towards the end of last year, the BBC reported that fewer young people are reading in their spare time; this article was followed up, only days later, with another that drew attention to disappointing literacy level in British pupils.
As the National Literacy Trust director, Jonathan Douglas, said: “Our research not only reveals that children are reading less and developing more negative attitudes towards reading, but also that there is a clear correlation between this and their performance in reading tests.”
But it’s not just children struggling to read and write, as Cathy Rentzenbrink, owner of the literacy-focused website Quick Reads, explains in her recent article in The Bookseller. There are vast portions of society who find it difficult to read, for one reason or another; people who lack this truly fundamental skill, and who, as a result, find even the simplest day-to-day tasks a daunting prospect.
The power of stories
The art of storytelling is part of the very fabric of what it means to be human. It’s a way of making sense of the world, an outlet for the imagination, a source of information and an incredible social lubricant. In short, it’s as old as humanity itself, and sits right at the heart of the collective character of our species. But some people are missing out.
With this in mind, WBD is much more than just the domain of wordsmiths – though, of course, it’s a fabulous opportunity for book-lovers everywhere to shout about the wonders of their dog-eared favourites. It’s also about nurturing the skills of those who need it most, inspiring and empowering young and old, whether they’re seasoned readers or just starting out. It serves to remind us all of the enduring power of stories and to reacquaint us with some of the greatest characters in literature – characters who will stay with us for life and teach us some of the wisest lessons we’ll ever learn.
As Julian Barnes, in his novel Flaubert’s Parrot, said: “Books say: She did this because. Life says: She did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t.”