Wednesday, 1 May 2013

A Page from World Book Night!

We're pleased to announce that for today's post we have guest blogger Dr Anne Price-Owen, sharing her experience of World Book Night with us! Dr Anne Price-Owen recently retired as Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Art & Design, University of Wales Trinity Saint David Swansea Metropolitan. She continues to supervise research students on a part-time basis, and this gives her more time to focus on alternative interests, which include curating exhibitions and exhibiting her own artworks. She has written extensively on the visual arts and literature in Wales. An admirer of the poet-painter David Jones(1895-1974), much of her critical and creative work is sourced in her explorations on the synergetic relationship between image and text. She is the Director of The David Jones Society which she inaugurated in 1996, and editor of the periodical The David Jones Journal 

A Page from World Book Night
I was thrilled when my application to be a book donor on World Book Night [WBN] was successful, because I love reading and want to encourage others to read. For sure, I know only one person who doesn’t read, except for the text which accompanies the images on her 40” telly screen! Accordingly, Beryl was my only certain target as the brief for WBN is to give a book to someone who is not a reader. Anyone I know who is an avid reader would have to be omitted from my readers’ list, with the exception of my friend Sue because she and I recommend and swop books regularly.
My book was Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen (2009). Out of the choice of books on offer, I deliberately selected a novel (I wanted an obvious story line), by an author I hadn’t read. I knew very little about Gregory, only that she wrote historical novels, a genre I seldom read. In other words, I quite unashamedly chose a book for its cover, rather than content. I fancied its title had mythic connotations (in this I was not totally incorrect), alluding to strange lands and curious characters, the stuff of a fantasy world, reminiscent perhaps of Lewis Carroll. But this novel is nothing like the Alice books. Rooted in the history of this island, it’s set in the 15th Century Wars of the Roses, and focuses on ‘the cousins war’, Edward III’s (1312-1377), great-grandsons, both born over a century after their great grandfather’s birth.
So that there was a chance that all the people to whom I gave a book could actually commence the story on World Book Night [WBN], I determined to start my task early on the day. I had decided that I could mention that 23 April is Shakespeare’s birthday which is a good day to give books away, but thought better of alluding to St George’s Day. I knew that, living in Wales, it mightn’t be smart to announce that it was also England’s national saint’s day. After all, he killed the dragon, and the red dragon is the icon of Wales having been passed down from Henry Tudor (Henry VII), the victor at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 which ended the Wars of the Roses, a not insignificant fact in relation to my Book.
It so happened that I had a medical appointment at 9.10am on WBD. Having packed my canvas bag with 8 copies (the optimum number of books I could comfortably carry), of my novel, I set off on the ten-minute walk from my house to the surgery, and collided with streams of schoolchildren, mostly teenagers, on their way to the nearby secondary school. Most of them were in gangs of five or six, with some of the groups comprising boys and girls. My quarry was the female sex. On reading the novel I rather regretted my choice, because I considered that its appeal would be restricted to women: its author is female, the title makes it clear that the protagonist is a woman, and the narrative is written in the first person singular, by the titular queen herself. Two girls, perhaps 15- or 16-year olds, were chattering together, and I homed in on them. They were reluctant to stop, and even less inclined to engage in conversation with me, but I persisted. I explained my mission, showed them a copy of the book, and finally pressed one to take it, having told them that this was a Romance between a king and a queen, initially fighting on opposing sides, so there’s lots of intrigue, mystery, mayhem and murder. Fundamentally, it’s like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet being a story about love at first sight. I focused on the romantic aspects, and confided that the first love scene takes place on page six.  I suggested whoever reads the book first should pass it on to the other, and then to their friends.
When I entered the doctors’ surgery there were nine people waiting for appointments. At a guess the average age was 78 years! Undaunted, I told them tonight was World Book Night, and that I had books to give away for the occasion. None seemed very interested, but I persevered and I warned them that there were nine people in the waiting room, and I had only 7 books, so two would be disappointed. No-one spoke. I raised a copy of The White Queen, looked around the room in mock eagerness, questioned each one with my eyes, and all faces wore an indifferent expression. I couldn’t even give the receptionist a copy, who protested that she was ‘too busy’ to read. I considered asking the doctor after she’d given me a clean bill of health, but she seemed rather preoccupied and slightly severe, so I refrained.  
I was on my way home, and just passing the park as two women were walking through the gateway. I announced WBN, and both smiled: they knew what day it was! I offered them each a book and both accepted. One is a librarian at a local library, so of course she knew all about WBN. We had a friendly chat, before I returned home, and they went on their way promising to pass their novels on to others once they’d read them.
An hour later I took my spaniel for a walk through the park, having topped up my book bag. This time I was able to approach people with impunity. Having a spaniel is an ice-breaker. Having a spaniel with what’s been described as an ‘electric wagging tail’ reinforces the concept of ‘ice-breaker’. The vast majority of people are willing to smile, acknowledge, stop and talk. Discussing the story-line, the plots and sub-plots, the interweaving of characters, the facts (pointing out the Family Tree diagram that forms a Preface to the story), the fictionalising and embellishment of our own histories, the power struggles of the kings and their armies as well as the ruthless queens and their tenacity in securing fortunes for their heirs, in addition to the poignancy of the Princes in the Tower, was fodder for the hours I spent in my successive walks in the park that day. I gave my penultimate copy away at 4.30pm, to another schoolgirl who was standing with a schoolfriend talking to a young mother with her infant in his pram. Once I’d started to reveal the sequence of events, it was the schoolgirl who took the book, and not the young mother.
Giving books away is a very satisfying way of spending a day. However, I know that I didn’t fully fulfil the objectives of WBN. My most blatant oversight – I don’t call it an error – was to give books to people who read regularly. This is because I found it very difficult, impossible in fact, to refuse a book to any of the people I offered the book to, even before I asked them if they read regularly. It suddenly seemed very churlish to refuse them a book, and it was such a delight to tell them about it – an appreciative audience is very gratifying. I cite the librarian again: she was so pleased to meet someone giving books away that she wanted to participate fully in the project. There were others who’d just finished a book and were considering what to buy next and it was serendipitous that I happened along. One dog-walker favours poetry, so I was able to point out Byron’s She Walks in Beauty on the inside back cover of the novel, and she was won over. I found the easiest people to engage with about books were young women pushing prams. Perhaps they read aloud to their babies, and are good at multi-tasking. Some people wanted to know if they should pay me for the books. As far as I can tell, I encountered just one person whose first language is not English, who accepted the book. And I got two men to promise to read the book, too. One was the other half of a couple of twitchers who’d spotted a goldcrest and pointed it out to me. The plot of The White Queen appealed to his wife, but it was the historical aspect that interested him, and he was looking forward to a good read. The other man was a plumber whose wife liked reading, and he said that he’d read it too. I saved my last copy for Beryl so that I could hand it to her on WBN, and she is going to pass it on to her friend Hilary who is seldom seen without a book.
Anne Price-Owen April 2013


  1. Good on you, Anne! You're lucky not to have been arrested - accosting people in the street, offering them...books??

  2. An excellent choice, Anne! I very much enjoyed The White Queen when I read it last year. It's a good one to pick for WBN as anyone who enjoys it will be able to read more about the characters, and get a different view on the historical events, in Gregory's other Cousins' War novels - The Red Queen, The Lady of the Rivers and The Kingmaker's Daughter. I can vouch for all but the Kingmaker's Daughter, which I have my eye on in the public library and will be reading this summer!