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Lucy Mangan on World Book Day

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"I think my main problem in life is that, basically, whatever I’m doing, whatever the activity is that I am engaged in, I’d really rather be reading. Yes, every activity. Even that. And that. Yes, and definitely that.

I have, therefore, a disproportionate love for World Book Day (7 March), especially the element that sees children being given free books and vouchers and taking part in events that introduce them to the strange, square-ish papery things that adults seem to turn to even, occasionally, when the internet is still working. Plus they might gain their first glimmering insight into what the alchemical translation of marks on a page into language, ideas and stories can give them. I feel that if I stood in the right place at the right time of day when the wind was blowing in the right direction, I would hear the sound of seeds being scattered, taking root and giving rise to the next generation of readers.

That’s why I have to bury myself in books, you see. You can’t go around saying this kind of stuff out loud.

But World Book Day takes on a degree of both poignancy and urgency this year. Because this time it comes in the wake of over 200 library closures (plus another, uncountable figure who will eventually be holed beneath the waterline by cuts in their budgets, staffing, opening hours) and just before a further round of cuts that will jeopardise the remainder (along with the NHS, legal aid, housing, disability benefits and anything else you might feasibly consider it a civilised society’s duty to maintain).

If I hadn’t been a reader, I wouldn’t know anything, much. I wouldn’t know a good sentence from a bad one or how to construct an intelligible one of my own. I wouldn’t have half the vocabulary I do, which has enabled me over the years to write persuasive letters to potential employers, cover gaps in my knowledge with semantic flourishes (hello history GCSE! I’ve never forgotten you) and, of course, earn a living in one of the nicest ways possible short of being a marshmallow shop owner who breeds kittens.

Actually, that’s entirely wrong. I’ve missed out one vital element. If I hadn’t been a reader who had access to books I wouldn’t know anything, much. My dad bought me books – mostly ones he remembered from his childhood – and when I was older I got tokens and WH Smith vouchers (and this was in the days when WH Smith was primarily a bookshop. AND it sold porn mags. I try to remember this whenever I am in danger of over-romanticising the past) for birthdays and at Christmas and promptly turned them into William books, Enid Blytons and the next Laura Ingalls Wilder volume. I wasn’t allowed to buy Sweet Valley High – that was a bridge too far even for my bibliographically tolerant parents – but I had a sweet (haha!) deal with a friend at school and paid her in mint Poppets for a read of hers as soon as she had finished. Truly, necessity is the mother of entrepreneurship.

World book day embodies a belief in the ability of books to empower

But what if I hadn’t been so ridiculously lucky? Well, then there would have been libraries. I did use them, of course – that’s where I discovered Mrs Frisby And The Rats Of NIMH, Judith M Beresford’s entire oeuvre (ponies! Bran mash! Pony thieves! More bran mash!), The Wombles and other delights too numerous to list. But I was lucky – I could use them to supplement my supply. For others, libraries were their sole source of books, their sole source of food for the imagination, the soul, the only means of slaking the thirst for discovery, for facts, for stories, for knowing how the world and the people in it worked – for an education in the round. Where will they go, once the last library has closed? I always think of Jeanette Winterson, who tells in her brilliant autobiography Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? how she used to take herself off to Accrington Public Library to read her way, in alphabetical order (“Thank god her last name was Austen”) through the shelves and came to understand the world and herself.

The impulse behind World Book Day is, in essence, the same that led to the founding of public libraries – a belief in the ability of books to empower and liberate all those who have access to them. Celebrate it, and rage, rage against a government that works towards the killing of that light."

Email Lucy at lucy.mangan@stylist. co.uk or tweet her @LucyMangan



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