For the entire Christianity, April 23 is an important day: the commemoration of the martyr St. George, the dragon slayer and thus protector against evil. By a happy coincidence, this day has acquired another important significance from a cultural point of view: in 1995, it was declared World Book Day or World Book and Copyright Day. The day was initially chosen by Spanish booksellers, when they decided to commemorate Miguel de Cervantes, who passed away on April 22 and was buried on April 23. They couldn’t have made a better choice, since April 23 is also the day when William Shakespeare was born and died. There is also an interesting connection between St. George’s Day and books: they say that in Spain (St. George is both the patron of Catalonia and of England), on this particular occasion (also called „The Day of the Rose“), gentlemen offered roses to ladies, who in return offered them books as a present. Due to these various connections with literature, in 1995 UNESCO appointed April 23 as World Book Day. In the United Kingdom, World Book Day is celebrated on the first Tuesday in March instead. Here is a brief description of World Book Day coming straight from the British organizers:
World Book Day is a celebration! It’s a celebration of authors, illustrators, books and (most importantly) it’s a celebration of reading. In fact, it’s the biggest celebration of its kind, designated by UNESCO as a worldwide celebration of books and reading, and marked in over 100 countries all over the world.
Publishers, booksellers and interested parties in each country take World Book Day as an occasion to organize special events and promotions. In the UK for example, school children receive tokens they can exchange against certain books in stores or libraries. Considering that books are not always a very cheap and available commodity, in a world permanently confronted with all sorts of crisis, this kind of strategy is essential in encouraging both children and adults to get back into the habit of buying and reading books and hopefully experience real delight in doing that. It seems to me that very few people still read for pleasure nowadays. Unfortunately, the people who benefit from academic education and obtain a degree are compelled to move within the boundaries of their fields of activity, as most of the reading they do throughout their school and academic period and later on is mainly for professional reasons.
So is reading really that important? Haven’t books become rather obsolete in this highly digitalized era of ours? Let’s certainly hope not. There are so many reasons why literature and books in their classical written form should survive. I will spare you the didactic approach and I will try to speak about emotions instead. The quite recent discovery of this date’s meaning made me consider the role of books in our lives and the importance of books for us human beings even more than I usually do. „Books are for people who wished they were somewhere else“, as Mark Twain himself put it. I have also asked myself many times what we would be without stories. We thrive on fiction as plants thrive on water. The Dutch historian Johann Huizinga was convinced that many human activities and even institutions developed primarily as a result of the innate inclination towards play. These ideas are the object of one of his most known works, Homo ludens. Surely there is a spark of play in our propensity for storytelling. But there is so much more to it than that. The playing man is simply one facet of the inclination towards inventing, writing and narrating stories. As we go on with our day-to-day lives, story-telling – be it books, movies, or even real-life stories told when chit-chatting or drinking coffee with friends – represents our way of breaking free, of making everything more colourful. When you have a dull day, you can dive into a new book, get caught in the action and suspense, explore a different landscape, learn about characters, their thoughts, fears and joys – no better way to nip boredom right in the bud, if you ask me. However, fiction is not all reading is about.
Books are often (if not always) based on other books and especially in the postmodern literary era, intertextuality is omnipresent. Essentially, there is an entire world of communicating characters, themes, places – but this world is only accessible to those who read. An unopened book is not worth much. That is why it is so important to spread the word about the delights of reading as much as possible and make books available to everyone, no matter their educational background and cultural knowledge. In this respect, the World Book Day-related projects and initiatives are a great place to start.
PS: And since it’s a celebration we are speaking of and we need to pay our respects to books and literature in general, don’t let this day come to an end without opening one of your favourite books or even buying a new one. We leave you with a lovely short animation about the power of books.