UNESCO World Book and Copyright took place for the first time on April 23rd, 1995. It is a worldwide celebration of books and reading, marked in over 100 countries around the world. Each year it is celebrated on that date, with the aim of encouraging reading for pleasure, and raising money to provide books for those who are less fortunate. Commemoration on this day originated in Spain, on St George’s Day, where a rose is traditionally given for each book that is sold on that day. Coincidentally, the 23rd of April is also significant as it makes the birth of William Wordsworth and the death of William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes.
In the modern digital age, with the increasing importance of technology and instantaneous information, we often undervalue the positive impacts that books have had on our lives. In a country with free access to primary and secondary education, as well as both school and local libraries, it’s easy to forget that owning and reading books is a privilege that not everyone has. Millions of people around the world, particularly women and girls, are unable to read and have little to no access to books, let alone the internet. In many countries, children do not have books at home, and school libraries are often small, where they exist at all.
Books are important to fighting illiteracy and improving access to information, helping to lift people out of poverty by improving employment opportunities and increasing household income. For underprivileged women, access to books can help improve gender inequality, as being able to read to a good standard helps to remove barriers that make them dependent on their partners. In more privileged countries, too, reading for pleasure in childhood is associated with improved life chances, and can be the biggest single indicator of a child’s future success. Even bedtime stories have been shown to be beneficial to children’s development.
But even beyond the benefits they have for the future of people all around the world, books are wonderful and powerful things. They preserve and disseminate knowledge, giving us a window to the past, and helping us to imagine a future. Without books, so much of what we know about times gone by would have been lost, the thoughts of those who came before lost without a trace.
Through reading, we broaden our horizons. We learn how to empathise, how to see and interpret the world through the lives and stories of others, of people whose experience and beliefs are completely different from our own. Books help us make up our minds, make our own choices, and enable us to challenge the ideas we have always taken for granted. They inspire us, encourage us, empower us, and make us question everything we thought we knew. They can give a voice to those who would be silenced, promote acceptance, tolerance, and understanding, make us feel represented and no longer alone. Reading changes the way we see things, and the way we see ourselves.
But books are not just there to teach us, they also entertain. When life gets too much, books are an escape. They allow you to live a thousand lives, to live out all of your wildest dreams, to step out of your day-to-day life and take on the role of someone completely unlike yourself. Books give you the freedom to travel without moving your feet, immerse yourself in cultures a whole world away, in ways a computer never will.
This World Book Day, take some time for yourself. Put away those academic journals you’ve been starting at all square-eyed, grab the book you’ve been putting off reading, and let yourself relax away from your screens. As a student, it’s easy to see reading as a means to an end, something you have no choice but to do, and I’m as guilty as everyone else of that. But reading should be fun, something that brings you joy, and World Book Day is the perfect excuse to remind yourself of that.
Illustration: Adeline Zhao