World Book Night's evening of literary stars
World Book Night's Southbank event showcased the work of a huge range of authors
On Shakespeare’s birthday, 23 April, the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London’s Southbank Centre housed the major central event for this year’s World Book Night. In contrast to last year’s passionate - if blustery - event in Trafalgar Square, this was two hours of ticketed, sit-down readings, chaired by the ever-witty Hardeep Singh Kohli ("Hello, I'm Simon Cowell," he joked. "I'm not, but if we stop cherishing books I might as well be.")
While the first 20 minutes or so were taken up with thank yous and a general introduction to World Book Night, the varied evening included readings from the Bard from the likes of Olympic poet Lemn Sissay and and writers reading from others’ books: Kathy Lette on Dorothy Parker, Geoff Dyer on Billy Collins, David Nicholls reading from Great Expectations and best of all a gripping Owen Teale wringing every piece of poetry from David Peace’s extraordinary The Damned United.
The general mood was of a respectful celebration of books, but without question the night’s highlights were authors reading from their own works. Mark Haddon previewed the opening of his new novel The Red House – an interview with whom is up and coming in the new issue of We Love This Book – with moving aplomb, his domestic observations of a couple’s marriage in breakdown riveting the audience. And Turkish author Elif Shafak kept the audience spellbound with a portion of her new novel Honour.
As ever, those authors with humour on their side shone brightest and boosted the energy in the room – Andrea Levy’s reading from Small Island, for example, felt like a kind of homecoming and confirmed the book’s growing status as a modern classic.
Most uproarious of all was Jon Ronson, who treated the audience to a genuinely hilarious piece of (unpublished) writing about trying not to teach his son the worst swear word of all.
For all the gravitas, importance and righteousness that comes with a love of books and the desire to impress them on others, it was Ronson that best summed up what is best about World Book Night: the ability to break down barriers, bring people together and make you want to hear more.
One imagines Ronson could have been reading to any audience of any age and they would still have laughed – and that is something Shakespeare (someone not averse to playing to the pit himself) surely what have appreciated most of all.