I was half an hour late to work this morning. Nothing wrong with the trains (well, nothing more than usual), no tradesmen to let in, no alarm-clock-failing-to-go-off. I was late because I wanted to drop Bilbo Baggins and Belle (from Beauty and the Beast) off at school this morning for World Book Day. OK, I’m also late because I promised to prepare a suitable pair of hobbit feet for my eldest daughter and forgot to do it last night, but the main reason is I wanted to take them in to school in all their storybook glory.
I’m glad I did. They were clearly excited about the day and about being in costume, and it’s always nice, in this unforgivingly busy world of ours, to put a little bit of your day aside for quality family time. But actually, it turned out to be about much more than me spending an extra half hour with my children. I did it because of my children, but actually it was about all the children. For this one day, my daughters’ school was transformed from Grange Hill into Hogwarts, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. In addition to (but clearly not as impressive as!) my Belle and Bilbo, I saw white rabbits, genies from the lamp, multiple Harry Potters, Alices from Wonderland, assorted wizards, witches, ghosts and goblins, what looked like Inspector Gadget, Spider-man, the Incredible Hulk, Snow White and Where’s Wally – and that’s just in the five minutes it took to walk Bilbo round to her assembly area. It was, in every way that really matters, magical.
And it got me thinking: why don’t we do that? To be clear, I’m not using the royal ‘we’ (you don’t get off that easily!); I mean ‘us’ in the broadest sense possible. Those of us here at Gollancz – and, indeed, Orion – all work in publishing and are, therefore, all dependent for a living on lots of people buying books and reading them. All of you reading this blog are, presumably, doing so because you love books too. So what’s up with that? Why can’t we take a little joy in something we obviously care about a great deal? Too cool? Too reserved? Or too complacent? I really hope it’s not the latter, because that would be a great, great shame.
I imagine what’s happened is that we all lead busy lives and don’t have the head space to devote to dressing up or giving up time out of our hectic schedule to reflect on the value of books. That would be perfectly understandable in the 100-mile-per-hour modern world. And it would also be wrong. We are wrong if we can relegate this day to the status of a child’s play thing, something we’re happy to help the kids with but it’s not really for us. We are wrong if we can’t find the time or energy to celebrate reading in an open and joyful manner for even one day out of the year. We are wrong if, faced with the terrible statistic that one-in-six British adults has a literacy problem, or that we are losing independent bookshops at a rate of greater than one per week, our response is to shrug and say ‘What are you going to do?’
So, what are we going to do? We have to do something. Because if not us, then who? If we, the readers, writers and publishers of books don’t think enough of World Book Day to make an effort, then really . . . why should anyone else?