A night amongst stars and books

“On the banks of the Thames, on Shakespeare’s birthday, World Book Night at Southbank Centre presents a glorious array of writers reading from their own work, their favourite novels by classic authors and Shakespeare’s work.”

So read the introduction to an event I had turned up at with only the haziest of ideas of what to expect. (This is what happens when you accept last minute invites to things via Twitter…) I knew about World Book Night – it had launched last year in a very cold Trafalgar Square – and I knew about the books that were being given away all over the country by ‘Givers’. But did I realise that I’d be spending the evening in the same room as some of the country’s most notable authors – including David Nicholls, Iain Banks, Martina Cole, Andrea Levy & Mark Haddon? No.

The evening got off to a fairly good start when I spotted one of the free books on a cafe table, enabling Jo to acquire The Road by Cormac McCarthy before things had even got going. [Incidentally, she’s had 10 copies of The Book Thief to give away, you may be in luck if you head to Marylebone…] Things got even better when we noted the following sentence on the programme:
“Following part one, collect your free cocktail, give books and join us for part two of the evening.”
Seriously? Free books, free booze AND famous authors? That’s almost a perfect evening!

The concept was a fairly simple one – over a couple of hours, authors, actors and poets shared extracts aloud. They shared just enough to whet the audience’s appetites, but not to satisfy. We had a glimpse into another world and having been sucked in, it vanished. For three minutes I lived in the fear of Mark Billingham’s Sleepyhead; the dream world of Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture the Castle; and the hilarity of family life in the Ronson household.

You know how much I enjoy being read to, so imagine just how much I enjoyed being read to by the books’ authors! There’s just something about an author reading their own words with the voices they’ve given their characters. Listening to Andrea Levy read Gilbert’s first moments back in England (from Small Island) was fabulous – she transformed herself into a Jamaican man in 1940’s London with just her voice.

Oh, and it wasn’t all serious highbrow stuff. Any pretence at pretension was shattered when Kathy Lette greeted the audience with the words:
“Good evening members of the literati…and the cliterati, as there are so many women here!”

This year’s WBN list includes many of my all-time favourite books – The Time Traveller’s Wife, Rebecca, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and Notes from a Small Island – but after hearing extracts from some of the others, my To Be Read list has just got a lot longer. Plus, there are some that clearly need re-visiting (I have a sneaky suspicion that I never actually finished Small Island – shocking). Take it from me, you might want to investigate the following:
Sleepyhead – Mark Billingham (Or watch the recent Sky1 series.)
How I Live Now – Meg Rosoff
The Red House – Mark Haddon (It’s not been published yet, this was its first public reading.)
Honour – Elif Shafak

All this bibliophilic fun makes me even more despondent about my lack of fiction-reading time. Ach well…it’s not like the books won’t be around forever.


  1. That sounds amazing. I would love to have been there. I signed up as a book giver but didn’t get chosen in the end. Ah well, maybe next year.

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