Boyd Tonkin: Friendly books fall on Slough

The week in books
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The Independent Culture

After their glaring neglect of books and living writers for so long, the BBC's terrestrial TV channels are making up for lost time. Tomorrow, the corporation's "year of books" on screen goes into orbit with an evening-long extravaganza on BBC2 to celebrate World Book Night. Three Culture Show specials will highlight first the million-volume giveaway itself, then the "books we really read", courtesy of Sue Perkins (one for the populists there), and a new selection of 12 up-and-coming novelists. The BBC dozen features much-praised newcomers such as Stephen Kelman, Rebecca Hunt and Evie Wyld, as well as a few less than mainstream choices. Having piped up as a fairly lonely voice of acclaim for Welsh writer Deborah Kay Davies's scalding, unsettling debut True Things About Me, I'm glad to see the panel find a place for it.

This bookish soirée even tiptoes a little way down the Red Nose Day (or even Live Aid?) road with – no doubt excitable - live coverage from WBN events around the country. And the whole circus begins with a Trafalgar Square jamboree tonight, as a 10,000-strong crowd gathers to hear a stellar line-up of readers and performers, from Margaret Atwood to Sarah Waters, John le Carré to Alan Bennett, Edna O'Brien to Philip Pullman.

Good luck, and good reading, to one and all. It does still feel slightly weird to see the fate of books given the celebrity-strewn charidee treatment as if, as a cause, it resembled a cash-strapped hospital for poorly kiddies or a famine-blighted desert land. Times are tough for many, true – but on Monday, Penguin UK posted record results, with profits over £100 million (and £857 million for its parent group, Pearson). The death of publishing is often much exaggerated. Although a Good Thing in almost all respects, WBN will see the free distribution of many fine titles – from Mark Haddon and Philip Pullman to Kate Atkinson - that have already coined big money, long-term, for their publishers. Next year, a bolder choice perhaps?

WBN and its TV spin-offs belong resoundingly in the camp of what we scribes call a "diary story": an event signalled in advance, backed by persistent PR, scheduled and stage-managed in every last detail. The curious, and rather exciting, aspect of the world of books and reading in Britain just now lies in the proliferation of "off-diary" stories: more local, spontaneous, harder to find, way below the PR radar and, traditionally, the badge of pride for journalistic sleuths.

They relate, of course, to the scores of vehement campaigns to defend library services mounted around the country in every sort of community, from inner city to tranquil suburb to leafy shire. The campaigners exchange ideas and learn from one another, but each wave of protest – and each local-authority response - has its unique colour and flavour. I truly have no wish to diss World Book Night, but this dispersed network of popular activism matters more to the future of the written word in Britain. I trust that Pullman, a stalwart campaigner for the libraries, will find a link between the two ventures – top-down, and bottom-up – in Trafalgar Square tonight.

Most library news sounds bad, of course, with over 500 branches under threat and disruptive demos at London town halls this week in which libraries figured as a chief priority. But from the literary trenches, news comes through of the odd gain as well as severe losses. Slough Borough Council recently announced not closures but the opening of three new branches.

And a central flagship library with 2.5km of bookshelves will form the centrepiece of the "Heart of Slough" project. The council, as wounded by the cuts as any, has also promised to increase opening hours by 22 per cent. So much for the silly and snobbish metropolitan take on the town that endures from John Betjeman to Ricky Gervais.

Dozens of other authorities have the same option to set priorities, seek efficiencies, and cherish their own libraries. Protesters have to learn from the best practice as well as lambasting the worst. This may prove divisive: Slough also plans to contract out its service. But what a joy to see pathfinding progress from the home of Wernham Hogg.

Truth-telling trio at Westminster

However tough its local roots, the campaign for libraries still needs to raise its voice at Westminster. This week, MPs and peers faced an irresistible force in three parts as the parliamentary group on publishing met bestseller Kate Mosse (right), along with the chiefs of two key support bodies for books and readers: Viv Bird of Booktrust, and Miranda McKearney of the Reading Agency. Their case overturns some flaky received wisdom. Mosse makes clear that in the age of hi-tech social networks, public libraries have grown in value as safe, shared physical space. And McKearney notes that children's borrowing has risen for six years running. Legislators, listen.

Gaddafi can't pick up a Penguin

Among Britain's cultural giants, not only the blushing LSE has suffered from its Tripoli links. Penguin's golden week (see above) was tarnished a little by the news that a large Libyan investment in the publisher's parent, Pearson, has been frozen. It seems that the Libyan Investment Authority bought a stake of around 3 per cent in the group last year, and later upped it to 3.27 per cent. That holding, worth £280 million, meant the Gaddafi government counted as the fifth biggest shareholder in the conglomerate. Since (lawyers advised) the LIA stake fell under the government's asset-freezing order, it has now been put out of commission. Pearson CEO Dame Marjorie Scardino regrets that public-company rules mean it can't refuse such investment. Meanwhile, the Colonel has one UK publishing loyalist left. That armour-plated geezer-lit king John Blake plans to republish two Gaddafi books: Escape to Hell, and other stories, and a wacky set of interviews, My Vision. Now, deep breath: it's called free speech.