World Book Day 2021
by Iqbal Ahmed
For many years I mistakenly believed that World Book Day was celebrated on the first Thursday of March each year all over the world until I realised that it was observed on the 23rd of April in 100 countries – but not in the UK. This date is very special because both Shakespeare and Cervantes died on this day and, by some strange coincidence, in the same year – 1616. UNESCO has designated the 23rd of April as World Book and Copyright Day. But in the UK this date is reserved for the celebration of England’s patron saint, St George. I remember very well as a schoolboy when this UN agency proclaimed 1979 to be the International Year of the Child.
I certainly hadn’t heard about World Book Day in my childhood as it only came into existence in 1995. But for the last four years, I have cycled to Camden Town prior to this day to buy a costume for my small son, ranging from King Arthur to Gangster. Sadly, schools in London are still closed due to a third lockdown and therefore most of them are celebrating WBD virtually, like most cultural efforts these days, such as museum and gallery visits.
Last year, the hotel where I worked celebrated World Book Day by displaying a fibre-glass Elmer the Elephant in the lobby and handing out books by Lydia Ripper who sat behind a desk and signed them lovingly. In fact, I had bumped into the author of Elmer, David Mckee, at the London Book Fair the year before. The WHO hadn’t yet declared Covid-19 a pandemic when World Book Day was celebrated in the UK last year. The London Book Fair, scheduled for the following week, was cancelled and bookshops have remained closed for a good part of the year.
World Book Day is also a charity funded by UK publishers and booksellers and it distributes millions of £1 book tokens to children and young persons under 18 to celebrate the day. The book tokens are then swapped for free World Book Day books at bookshops. There are also other charities in the UK, such as BookTrust, that promote the love of reading among children. To mark this year’s WBD, an English teacher turned rapper, MC Grammar, has released a video of the first-ever official WBD song.
Reading a book is an essential activity for children who are currently glued to their screens using Microsoft Teams for homeschooling. Some schools have advised their pupils to wear something informal and comfy on the 4th of March, knowing that costume shops are still closed. In the past, these shops were teeming with parents trying to find the right costume for their young ones in the week leading up to World Book Day. And on the way to school on this day, you would come across children in colourful costumes as if it was carnival time.
We now have reason to be more optimistic about the near future. The situation was grim during the first week of March last year when no one knew for certain whether there would be a vaccine for Covid-19 before the end of the year. Millions of people in the UK and other countries have already been vaccinated and the summer looks promising.
World Book Day appears to have become exclusively an event for children, although UNESCO aimed to celebrate publishing and copyright as well on this day. It doesn’t seem to be a common celebration, though, either for children or adults. A love of reading usually begins spontaneously in childhood but it may require some effort to sustain it through adulthood. When I was growing up in Srinagar, my own love of reading started late in my teens because there was a dearth of children’s books apart from textbooks.
The mainstream publishing industry in the UK is still largely a preserve of the privileged despite recent efforts to make it more inclusive. And it is no wonder that the gatekeepers of this creative realm make it less accessible, perhaps unconsciously so, to others. You might go so far as saying that there are more mediated mediocre books in circulation than unmediated ones.
My 8-year old is more interested in watching videos on copyright rules – no, not concerning books but various music genres from Classical to Techno – rather than reading a book appropriate for his age. He sometimes brings home from his school a big hardback the size of a coffee-table book, too heavy for him to carry in his rucksack, and I am obliged to hang the bag on the handlebar of my own bike. The click-and-collect service offered by our local library has proved very useful during lockdowns. The librarian puts a book ordered online in a Kraft paper bag and writes the name of the borrower on it.
Public libraries in London provided me with hiding places for more than two and a half decades, until last year. Sometimes I would walk into Swiss Cottage library on my way to work if I happened to be early and spend some time in its reading room. It is housed in a listed building, inaugurated by the Queen in the 1960s. Other times I would meet a friend or acquaintance in the foyer of the British Library in full view of the leather-bound volumes on the shelves of King’s Library at its centre. How I long to go there again to meet an old acquaintance for a coffee when it reopens to the public and afterwards browse in its bookshop.