(~8 minutes to read)
I want my money back!
A week or so ago, I noticed on the BBC’s website that World Book Day was being observed on March 3rd (“celebrated” seems far too jolly a word for the way that Brits acknowledge such events, but “scowled at” seemed unduly disrespectful). So I thought, “I’ll write something based loosely on World Book Day.”
So… I started my research, and thirty seconds in, I discovered that it’s World Book Day in the UK only on March 3rd. Most of the rest of the world (Sweden’s another exception) observes it on April 23rd.
Come on UK—World Book Day? I denigrate the Americans for calling their baseball competition “The World Series” even though there’s only one country competing (two if you count Canada’s Toronto Blue Jays), yet I find my former homeland’s doing a similar thing with books!
The reasons for the World Series being so-called are wrapped up in myth, hype (surprise surprise) and confusion. The myth is that the series was originally sponsored by the New York World newspaper. The hype is that the Sporting Life publication hailed the 1884 winners of the Series as “Champions of the World”. The confusion is everything else.
Meanwhile, Back at World Book Day…
To be honest, I didn’t know there was such a thing as World Book Day, but I should have guessed—if there’s such a thing as World Toilet Day (Nov 19th), then there must be a World Book Day; I mean, the two go hand in hand (although a different part of the anatomy might be more appropriate, but I’ll resist the temptation). One parks oneself on the throne; one picks up a book. (One hopes that one won’t be so positioned for the entire day though.)
Questions race through my mind, eluding my “thought net” like butterflies teasing a lepidopterist. I did catch a couple of thoughts though—the two most frequent ones. (The cabbage whites of my mind?) Do books really need their own day? And why are there so many “World xxxxxxx Days”?
Do Books Really Need Their Own Day?
“Every dog has its day” is a fairly well-known aphorism (apparently August 26th is Dog Day, and October 4th is World Pet Day, not that these are what the aphorism refers to), but the dog is man’s best friend and arguably deserves its day, whereas books don’t share that lofty status. So why was it deemed desirable or necessary that books be given their own day?
Before I offer my cynical opinion, let’s look at the origins of World Book Day and some dates.
The Day of the Rose (and Windmill?)
In Spain, Catalonians have observed April 23rd (also St. George’s Day) as “The Day of the Rose” since 1436. Apparently, this celebration was much like Valentine’s Day (although without the “assistance” of Hallmark) and I strongly suspect it was invented by flower sellers or rose growers.
In 1923, booksellers in Catalonia wanted to honour the author Miguel de Cervantes (yah right!) who had died a mere 305 years previously, and used the fact that he died on “The Day of the Rose” to connect him to that date. No doubt some wag suggested that they rename the day to “The Day of the Rose and Windmill*”, but I can find no trace of a day of that name.
*Cervantes is famous for having written Don Quixote—Don Quixote “tilted at windmills” at one point in the book. For those who’ve never heard of Don Quixote, it’s pronounced “Ki’hotay”, not “Kwiksoat”. Perversely, the adjective that derives from the name, quixotic, is pronounced “kwiksotic”.
UNESCO Steps In
In 1995, UNESCO decided that books needed their own day, and came out with World Book and Copyright Day. I haven’t yet found anything that states why UNESCO saw the need; all the material I’ve read on the UN’s and UNESCO’s websites merely explain why April 23rd was selected (and no, it wasn’t because nobody else had claimed it). April 23rd is the date on which Shakespeare died (and possibly was born), on which the aforementioned Cervantes died, and on which several other prominent authors were hatched or dispatched.
The supposed goals of the event are noble—anything that promotes reading and increases literacy is a worthy cause. As for that “and Copyright Day”—I bet that wasn’t an afterthought. I’m sure that wise people saw the writing on the wall (and being literate, could read it). It would have said words to the effect of, “The advent of the digital age heralds an era of rampant copyright abuse” (assuming the graffitists’ spray cans had that much paint in them). As a writer, I’d like to reap the (financial) rewards of my efforts, so I applaud any concerted effort to raise awareness of and respect for copyright. How unfortunate that most organizations and events have dropped the “and Copyright” from the name.
So my cynical opinion of why we have a World Book (and Copyright) Day? I think the UN recognized the imminent onslaught of copyright infringers and put something in place that reminded people that copyright laws exist, using the promotion of increased world literacy as the vehicle. Feel free to rebut via a comment.
World XXXXXXXX Days
No – this is not a piece advocating the creation of a day devoted to X-rated imagery and text. The “xxxxxxxx” is algebraic—it’s a variable.
World Book (and Copyright) Day is just another in a long list of local, national and international days of observance/recognition/celebration. The number of world xxxxxxx days is quite astonishing. I’m sure there are more than 365 of them, so clearly gay whales may have to share their day with art-nouveau lattes.
Here’s a sample of days that are fairly-well guaranteed to raise an eyebrow. (I have no idea how authoritative my sources are!)
- World Frog Day; March 20
- International Special Librarian’s Day; April 10
- World Penguin Day; April 25 (There’s also a Penguin Awareness Day on January 20)
- International Biodiesel Day; August 10
- World Lizard Day; August 14
- International Chocolate Day; September 13
- International Talk like a Pirate Day; September 19
For a long list of bizarre and unique observed days, try this website.
Meanwhile, Back in the UK on March 3rd…
Apparently, the Brits observe “World” Book Day on March 3rd, because April 23rd clashes with the Easter school holidays. What does that matter? Books exist outside of schools. What’s more bonding than a family reading together? Could it be that someone with far too much power for their IQ decided that books and schools are linked to the exclusion of all else? Are parents not to be trusted to interact with their kids and books? Or have we raised a generation of parents who either don’t read or don’t have time/patience/inclination to read with their kids?
Or do the Brits ensure that the event falls on a school day so that kids can discard their school uniforms in favour of dressing up as a character from a favourite book? Nah! That’s too cynical, even by my standards!
Dress-up (or Down)
But that’s what they do in the UK, apparently. Instead of the neat row upon row of uniformed cherubs, schools become a holding tank for cats in hats, muggles dressed as Harry or Hermione, Cinderellas, Pinocchios, Scarecrows, Aslans, Wallys (aka Waldos in N. America) and goodness knows who else.
The pressure! As if Halloween isn’t bad enough (although Halloween still hasn’t reached North American levels (as far as I know)). What do kids whose parents don’t help them participate do? What about those that can’t afford to buy a costume and don’t have the skills, time, imagination and/or money to make one?
One suggestion might be to find a character who dresses really badly, or whose clothes are threadbare, patched and torn (maybe Oliver Twist, or Gordon Comstock from George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying; both books are favourites among the under-12s I’m sure!). Another suggestion might be to go as Tarzan or Mowgli, although now we’re getting into modesty issues. (But you have to admit— the costumes would be affordable and easy to make!)
A British comedian, one Joe Heenan, did the unthinkable and forgot about costumes for his kids this year. According to his Twitter posts, he was going to send them to school in uniform with a hairdryer and a toaster. The connection he made with World Book Day? A catalogue retailer’s catalogue—pages 89 and 165, to be precise. I’m surprised Argos is still using catalogues.
Mr. Heenan certainly showed some original thought, but I hope his kids were willing participants in a “just for laughs” Twitter prank. If they really did show up at school with their small appliances in their hands, I hope that their teachers and fellow students saw the joke. If that had happened in the environment I grew up in (East London), the kids would have been ridiculed mercilessly, beaten up and their appliances taken to the pawn shop.
Not that anyone on my street would have possessed an electric toaster, I’m pretty sure.
But back to books and book days. Books—good things. Book days—questionable. Despite the availability of e-books in all their various shapes and forms, you can’t beat the real thing. My Kobo is great for travelling, especially as airlines continue to reduce baggage allowances to the point that they’ll soon be measuring in grams. But the flight attendant will never tell you to stop reading your “real” book because it might interfere with the aircraft’s control systems.
Those of us who read regularly take books for granted. We may question the need for a special day set aside for books. Unfortunately, it’s the people who have easy access to books who mark the day—those in most need quite possibly don’t even know that World Book Day comes and goes each year.
Perhaps we need a World Communications Day to let the world know about all these World xxxxxxx days; now that would be one to celebrate.