World Book Night, Reading Elephants, and why it all matters

21 April 2017

[Left] World Book Night celebrations at Staffordshire Libraries

By Vaseem Khan, author of the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series

Some months ago, I received a message from my publisher informing me that my book The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra had been selected for World Book Night. After the initial euphoria had died down, I realised that this honour carried much greater significance than simply helping to boost my own profile as an author.

The aim of World Book Night is to “reach those who don’t regularly read”, to celebrate reading, and books, as a national occasion. I cannot think of a more apt and necessary agenda for an author to be involved with. After all, the very existence of an author is predicated on the belief that there are individuals out there who can and will read our work. Yes, we derive personal satisfaction from the act of creation, but don’t let any author tell you they don’t care whether anyone reads their books or not. I am certainly no exception.
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It took me twenty-three years and six rejected novels to finally see my books in print. The Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series – of which The Unexpected Inheritance was the first – has gone on to become a bestselling endeavour, following the adventures of Inspector Ashwin Chopra and his one-year-old baby elephant sidekick Ganesha as they solve crimes in modern India – and I have found myself on a rollercoaster ride of media interviews and literary festivals ever since.

As gratifying as this all is, none of it compares to the simple satisfaction of interacting with individual readers, of hearing what they liked or didn’t like about the books, and of learning about their ‘reading lives’. I am particularly fascinated by people’s earliest memories of reading – What created in them an affinity for reading? A special book? A dedicated teacher? Encouragement at home?

Unexpected cover.jpgOver the course of the past year I have spoken at numerous schools, to children of varying degrees of reading ability, to adult groups who find reading a challenge (I am scheduled to speak to a drug recovery group next month), and run a library book group for east London residents, many of whom do not count English as a first language. This is all part of my own simple initiative to promote literacy, which I have named The Reading Elephant, in honour of little Ganesha.

What struck me was how vulnerable those who struggle with the written word can be made to feel, if they are not positively encouraged. Initiatives such as World Book Night are a clarion call to educators everywhere to set our shoulders squarely to the wheel.

Why is literacy so important?

One only has to examine the post-truth world we now live in to understand how a lack of literacy can hamstring ordinary citizens, even those in established democracies, leaving them at the mercy of agendas which they cannot follow, and thus influence. But literacy is so much more than a means of ensuring inclusion in the national dialogue. Literacy is the foundation on which modern society has been built; it is the scaffold on which economic and social progress is erected.

It is more imperative than ever that we begin to address these types of literacy inequalities. Not just between rich and poor, the have and the have nots, but also for those who are not born with an innate aptitude for the endeavour. Research by the National Literacy Trust indicates that fewer pupils now read for enjoyment. Some 16% of adults in England are “functionally illiterate” – ie. they have “literacy levels at or below those of an 11-year-old”, hampering employment in many areas, and rendering a struggle even everyday tasks such as supporting their children with reading and homework.

I firmly believe that for any society that aspires to call itself civilised it must be seen as a right of every citizen to receive the correctly calibrated support and encouragement – in tune with their abilities – to bring them along on the road to literacy. The Reading Agency – who run World Book Night and who “aim to inspire more people to read”, state their rationale as “Because everything changes when we read.” I could not agree with this more. Reading is the key to unlocking aspirations, the ultimate tool in ensuring inclusivity in our modern society.

There is no magic bullet in this fight – but initiatives such as World Book Night are another step towards the light.

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Find out more about World Book Night

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra is one of many books donated by publishers for World Book Night 2017. Take a look at the others


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