How was your holiday? I’m sure your Seder was convivial and you looked absolutely fetching in your new Easter duds, but that’s not what I’m asking about. I mean World Book Day on April 23rd. Don’t tell me you didn’t celebrate, not with all the different things you could have done to take part. Like what? For starters, you could have given away free books.
The good people at worldbooknight.org concocted a scheme a few years ago that brought together writers, publishers, booksellers, librarians, and literature lovers of all kinds to evangelize on behalf of reading. The concept is incredibly simple. First, an independent panel chooses thirty or so titles of various types, some serious, some fun, some fictional, some true, some for adults, a few for kids, all excellent in their own right. The publishers print special editions of those books at their own expense, the authors waive their royalties, and bookstores and libraries agree to serve as distribution nexuses. From there volunteers collect those books, twenty copies each of their chosen titles, and fan out across the globe–well, so far, across the UK, the US, and Germany–to hand them out in places where you don’t usually find readers. Parks, laundromats, bars, that sort of thing.
Free books freely given on April 23rd. That’s it in a nutshell. It’s an awesome project, and one in which I’ve participated multiple times, sharing The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and The Phantom Tollbooth. I recommend the experience to all, but especially to other booksellers, not least because it puts you into contact with the great mass of humanity that loves storytelling but never thinks to go into a shop to look for it between covers.
You could also have celebrated as the Catalonians do. Over in the northeast region of Spain, April 23rd is La Diada de Sant Jordi, a festival for the patron saint we Anglophones call St. George. Since the Middle Ages that date has been an excuse for lovers to give each other gifts, and for much of that time, books have been the preferred vehicle of exchange. This is due to the timeless nature of the printed word, of course–“a rose for love and a book forever”–but also because of a calendrical coincidence. The father of the immortal Don Quixote and of Spanish literature itself, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, was buried on St. George’s Day.
The tradition has spread to the United States in recent years thanks to independent bookstores, notably Denver’s Tattered Cover and Austin’s BookPeople, who put their own spin on the event. Seems those Texans were big fans of Barcelona native Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s Shadow of the Wind and created a Library of Forgotten Books to match the one in his novel. We at Island Books liked the idea so much that we stole … er, borrowed it and compiled our own collection of unsung stories. I used the occasion to stump forPenelope Fitzgerald, whose brilliant, biting books are still around, but not nearly so well known as they should be.
Yet another layer of coincidence applies to April 23rd. It’s the death day and the presumed birthday of one William Shakespeare, of whom you may have heard more than a mention, him being the virtual patron saint of English letters. If you weren’t doing anything else, you could have honored the occasion by reading one or another of the latest tomes to have set sail on the sea of Shakespeariana. I personally endorse scholar James Shapiro’s new anthology Shakespeare in America, but if my name doesn’t sway you to pick it up, maybe Bill Clinton’s will. He wrote the foreword, which helps prove Shapiro’s point that the bard’s work is inextricably wound into the skein of American history.
We’re clear then that the 23rd of April is a major holiday? Mark it down for next year in ink. While you’re at it, make sure Bloomsday is in your planner too. June 16th, when Joyce fans gather to quaff Guinness and recite passages from Ulysses in their worst Irish brogues. Book your ticket to Dublin early, because it’s a big deal.
Now that I think about it, there’s plenty of room on the calendar for more literary holidays. There’s already an International Women’s Day that falls on March 8th, but wouldn’t it be more fun to honor the poet, playwright, and part-time spy Aphra Behn, who was the first of her sex to earn a living from her pen? Or we could all pick a day in June and go buy flowers to commemorate Mrs. Dalloway. August has always lacked a big event, so why don’t we turn Herman Melville’s birthday on the first of the month into a thing? Just spitballing here, but we can start with a marathon reading of Moby-Dick and Queequeg-style face painting for the kids. Plenty of time to ramp up to harpoon-throwing and beard-growing contests before the Melville bicentennial in 2019.
Too much fuss and bother for your tastes? Then you’ll appreciate the subtler approach of my next notion: put writers’ faces on our money. Donald Barthelme will make a great replacement for Lincoln on the penny, and wait until you see Gertrude Stein on the three-dollar bill ….
James Crossley is a bookseller and blogger at Island Books on Mercer Island. If he could grow a luxuriant mane of facial hair in honor of Herman Melville and shave off his mustache in honor of Donald Barthelme, he would. He thanks François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, for providing this essay’s title.