Open a World this World Book Day

Date 5 March 2024

World Book Day is not just a one-off event for dress up and school children; it’s a day for reminding ourselves of human values and what bonds us together as a society. Rod Rosenquist argues that how well we value books is intimately connected to how well we value human beings.

Rod Rosenquist

The funny thing about World Book Day is that we in the British Isles are the only ones in the world celebrating right now. When Gail Rebuck took up the fight against falling literacy in schools to create the UK’s own World Book Day, other countries had already been celebrating for some time – especially those in Spain who started things off in the 1920s. The UK, which prides itself on one of the world-leading literary traditions, followed a few years after the UNESCO initiative in the mid-90s, celebrating on 23 April. But it was eventually decided that the day everyone else celebrated, the day of Shakespeare’s death no less, was already too crowded on our calendars, so we plumped for March. I guess we’re first each year, at least, even if we fail to add to the world in World Book Day.

But what does World Book Day mean to us in the UK? For some, it’s nothing more than fancy dress. Each year at schools across the country, it’s little more than a child’s holiday. And for every Matilda or Harry Potter, there’s also a Wally or a Disney-style Pooh: that is, you don’t always have to love reading to take part in World Book Day. Because we target young kids on this day, the message has possibly been muddled: you don’t have to be literate to make the most of book culture. Where once it was about offering a book to those who wouldn’t otherwise get one, now it’s about leaving your school uniform in the wardrobe for the day to dress up as your favourite Marvel character, possibly paying Amazon or Tesco more than the cost of a paperback to get your props right! Like everything else, the charitable event has become commercialised and turned to profit. No wonder parents are joining the backlash against competitive costuming for World Book Day.

But in 2024, what should World Book Day represent to those of us living lives beyond the school gates? Books are for grown-ups, too. We’ve been called a ‘nation of shopkeepers’, and we’re busy proving that true – unless we reinvent our sense of what books might mean to us. Ravaged by systemic underfunding, our nation’s libraries struggle to provide the easy access to books they have traditionally offered; even some traditional book publishers or booksellers are struggling. For so many, a book is online shopping for a shiny new thing delivered tomorrow, a simple product, even when there’s never time to read it. Or a book is a famous title by an author offered up for free on Kindle, downloaded, browsed, then dropped.

In my house, phones aren’t allowed around the breakfast or dinner table, but books are. There’s a pile of them on the windowsill by where my kids sit. No, I don’t always get to hear about their day during mealtimes – it’s an oddly quiet affair for a regular family event! But even if I don’t hear about their day, I’m entirely warmed by the knowledge that they are still living that day in some world, in someone else’s shoes, in another time or another universe. That day expands infinitely with a book in their hands. Our books in this house are not new – they’re not the stuff of Jeff Bezos’s ambitions. They’ve been lived in. We’re a family of re-readers: our books are often smudged with greasy thumbprints from when my children were still children, marks and scuffs from years of use, still there now as they near university age. The tower of books near the table sits right next to the cloth napkins, as if to say, take your pick; this life’s spills and excesses are as easily soaked up in the pages of books as by a kitchen towel. We put our whole selves into our books, if we’re doing it right.

This is what a book means to me: being human for an hour. World Book Day, instead of being about dressing up or getting a new glossy paperback for £1 – instead of solely being about childhood habits and literacy rates or ‘doing good’ for charity – is a reminder that this day is another day for putting a little time aside for reading, for communion with various human perspectives, for venturing into new worlds. Not all reading does this: you don’t have to be literate to use the internet.

Words on screen speed us up – urge us to click here, look there! – while words on pages slow us down and simply give us a moment. What a gift – and yet we’re made to feel guilty for spending the length of a cup of tea with a book on a sofa.

Life is more than shops and shopkeepers, more than global commerce and data, and books put a hand on our shoulder and remind us: we’re not, as a species, single-minded; not alone, not ruthless, not increasingly efficient cogs in a machine; we’re bound up in a universe of perspectives and wonder. We’re curious, at our best, as we go looking into other people’s lives: wondering what it means to be Moll Flanders or Leopold Bloom – to be rich or poor; right or left; centre or margin; boy, girl, both or neither. A book is your hour to be different, to see the world as the other, to be welcomed in and then step back out, renewed and distinctively you.

I’m afraid of a world where we no longer take that time offered by books. It’s a world where we don’t know each other and so we don’t know ourselves. The value of books is not monetary; an education in books is never low value, regardless of what happens after. The value of books is intimately tangled up in the value of human beings, and when one declines, so does the other; a society without time for books is a society impoverished and malnourished. For this World Book Day in March (and again, perhaps, in April, and each day thereafter), invest some time not only in buying a new book, but in reading it – investing a little into human culture by drawing closer to someone who sees the world through a different frame.

Rod Rosenquist is Senior Lecturer in English and Creative Writing on the University of Northampton’s English BA degree course

Rod Rosenquist
Rod Rosenquist

Dr Rod Rosenquist is Senior Lecturer in English and Creative Writing. He is the author and editor of books and articles on literary modernism, and teaches English literature to all students from the first year to PhD supervision.