When they meet, they sit around a wooden table draped in red cloth. Their deliberations are secret. And the choices they make may affect the lives of thousands. No, this is not the clandestine panel to select the next Archbishop of Canterbury. It is the World Book Night U.K. & Ireland Editorial Committee, which this autumn spent six weeks agonizing over their choice of 20 books that will be distributed by the thousands on April 23, 2013.
Made up of 17 editors, authors, librarians and laypeople, the committee selects 20 books that 20,000 volunteers will give away 20 copies of to whomever they choose—including schoolchildren, hospital patients and prisoners—as part of a worldwide initiative to spark a love of reading in those who may currently rank the activity on a par with eating steamed spinach. (Charity partners and institutions will distribution an additional 100,000 books.)
So how does the committee choose? It’s all a bit hush-hush. “Picking the World Book Night books is a little bit like laws and sausages,” says Julia Kingsford, the CEO of World Book Night. “You don’t necessarily want the general public to know how they’re made.” This much, however, we do know: On Sept. 5 the panel met for the first time in the top-floor gallery of the venerable Foyles Bookshop in Central London. As the afternoon sun shone through the large windows, casting a warm glow on the wood-beamed ceilings, the committee took their places around a table and stared at a list, compiled from public suggestions, that was thousands of titles long.
But this was no direct democracy. The committee takes the public’s ideas into account, but much like the U.S. electoral college, it reserves the right to make up its own mind. It didn’t take long for the disagreements to begin. “We deliberately pick people who are so passionate that there are going to be moments where somebody says, ‘We absolutely have to have this book,’ and somebody else says, ‘Over my dead body,’” Kingsford says.
The books they ultimately chose—which range from Robert Louis Stevenson’s swashbuckling pirate tale Treasure Island to Jeanette Winterson’s memoir of growing up lesbian and adopted in Lancashire, Why be Happy When You Could be Normal?—seem to have little in common. Kingsford says that’s the point. “We don’t sit down and think, well this year we’re going to focus on anything in particular,” she says. Instead, the committee builds a rich mix of genres, from science fiction (Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, ) to thrillers (Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale) to romances (Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You) to historical fiction (Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen) and works for young adults (Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses). They took special care to select books that would appeal to people with varying reading abilities—the graphic novel Judge Dredd: The Dark Judges by John Wagner serves that role, as does Andy McNab’s terse, riveting novel Last Night Another Soldier about British troops in Afghanistan in 2009. When it comes to lengthy classics, the committee—which is hoping to draw in first-time readers—treads carefully. “We’re unlikely to ever put Anna Karenina on there,” Kingsford says.
Others may not share such an enlightened approach to literary diversity. In 2011, the BBC drew the wrath of genre fiction authors for its coverage of World Book Night, which, wrote science fiction writer Stephen Hunt, lingered over the literary fiction offerings on the list before “gently” moving on to “the genres that real grubby proles stubbornly insist on reading—romance, crime, thrillers, chick-lit.”
Such squabbles don’t faze Kingsford and her panel, however. “A lot of the starting point for us is how much you can fall in love with a story,” she says. “When you’re reading a book you love, you basically just read it.”
The 2013 World Book Night titles are:
- The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry (Faber)
- Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman (RHCB)
- The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (HarperCollins)
- The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (Hodder)
- Casino Royale by Ian Fleming (Vintage)
- A Little History of the World by E. H. Gombrich (Yale)
- The White Queen by Philippa Gregory (Simon & Schuster)
- Little Face by Sophie Hannah (Hodder)
- Damage by Josephine Hart (Virago)
- The Island by Victoria Hislop (Headline)
- Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay (Picador)
- Last Night Another Soldier… by Andy McNab (Transworld)
- Me Before You by Jojo Moyes (Penguin)
- Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (Walker)
- The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (Orion)
- No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith (Little, Brown)
- Treasure Island by R. L. Stevenson (Penguin)
- The Road Home by Rose Tremain (Vintage)
- Judge Dredd: The Dark Judges by John Wagner (Rebellion)
- Why be Happy When You Could be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (Vintage)