A Week in Books: Buckaneers on the high seas of marketing

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The Independent Culture

On Thursday pirates will storm Bristol city centre as its entire population reads Treasure Island. That's the hope, at any rate, of the folk from Bristol 2008, the city's bid to be European Capital of Culture. They're not expecting the city to grind to a complete halt as workers down tools, phones and bus passes in favour of the classic adventure story, but they are hoping that a high proportion of its citizens will, over the next month or so, find the time to be swept away by Long John Silver. We've all heard about the rise of the book group – particularly now that it's a TV sitcom – but this is something else. As community arts ambitions go, it's pretty much on a par with US foreign policy.

On Thursday pirates will storm Bristol city centre as its entire population reads Treasure Island. That's the hope, at any rate, of the folk from Bristol 2008, the city's bid to be European Capital of Culture. They're not expecting the city to grind to a complete halt as workers down tools, phones and bus passes in favour of the classic adventure story, but they are hoping that a high proportion of its citizens will, over the next month or so, find the time to be swept away by Long John Silver. We've all heard about the rise of the book group – particularly now that it's a TV sitcom – but this is something else. As community arts ambitions go, it's pretty much on a par with US foreign policy.

Thursday is World Book Day and this is one of many attempts to lure the masses into the pleasures of reading. In schools around the country children will dress up as their favourite character and take part in readathons and book trails. Adults will not, one hopes, be extending the idea by turning up to work dressed as Jane Eyre or Samuel Pepys, but this does not mean they escape the (almost military) campaign. Martine McCutcheon, Lulu and fierce fashion duo Trinny & Susannah will be among those plastered on buses and billboards, all clutching, and apparently perusing, their new must-have accessory. An online festival offers live web chats with Terry Pratchett and the ubiquitous Nigella.

I'm all for books, of course. Well over 100,000 are published in this country every year and it would be a great shame if nobody bought or read them. If donors are willing to provide half a million's worth of advertising space to promote the joys of reading, that can only be a good thing. It's rather thrilling to imagine the burghers of Bristol enjoying the shared pleasure of a trip to Treasure Island, even if it does come at some considerable cost to the public purse. The pirates in the city centre will, at least, be pointing people towards a book, unlike the performance artist whose plan to kick a curry carton down Bedford High Street was meant to illustrate "personal-societal dysfunction".

It is entirely understandable, and pragmatic, to take the path of celebrity endorsement for a product that's seen to be in need of a touch of glamour. It is also slightly depressing. What books need, is the sub-text, is a radical makeover à la YBA. We may have Zadie Smith, but where is our Tate Modern, our Tracey Emin, our Charles Saatchi? Why don't writers drink with rock stars or supermodels and get themselves snapped in Hello! and Heat?

Well, sometimes, as at the launch for Sophie Dahl's new "novel", they do. Nicky Haslam was there, in a huge fur coat that matched his strange chestnut tufts, presumably a sign that this was one literary do that had hit the heady heights of the suitably superficial. I don't think anyone was touting Ms Dahl as the next Booker prize-winner, but I do think there's a more general sense of cultural confusion. While libraries are re-launched as "idea stores", gleaming coffee bars with some fusty old books tucked away at the back, arts administrators outline proposals for literature projects full of gimmicks in the endless search for the "innovative".

Of course there's room for marketing; of course there's room for imaginative promotion and if celebs want to garner a bit of intellectual credibility, then there's room for that, too. But many of the most popular books in recent years – Longitude, Captain Corelli and even, at first, Harry Potter – have sold on word of mouth. They've sold, in fact, on passion and that's not something you can manufacture or buy.

Boyd Tonkin is away

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