Boyd Tonkin: How to make Scrooge repent

The week in books

In a slow news week, the story offered a heart-warming coda to any version of A Christmas Carol that flickered across festive screens. Education secretary Michael "Scrooge" Gove removes £13m in funding from the BookTrust charity. Thus he snatches away the free books distributed to babies and young children under the Bookstart, Booktime and Booked Up gifting schemes. Jointly playing Marley's Ghost, Philip Pullman, Michael Rosen and Carol Ann Duffy whisk Ebenezer Gove out of his cold Surrey bed. They drag him shrieking through the snowy night to a lonely graveyard where a neglected headstone records the accursed miser who robbed a generation of kids of their inspiration and enlightenment.

Archetypal narratives can make for fabulously effective politics. Of course, Gove relented. The Department and BookTrust now promise to plan "a new programme which will ensure that every child can enjoy the gift of books at crucial moments in their lives". Turkey and trimmings all round. And Tiny Tim – who did not die – devours his free books in peace again. God bless us, every one!

Very much a personal mission of Gordon Brown, the Bookstart programme and its successors have in fact attracted far from wholehearted support among professionals. Its direct impact proved hard to measure, especially after such a short time. As a universal benefit, it gives a bonus to rich as well as poor. It also involves the state, Soviet-style, in the bulk purchase and distribution of a few favoured titles - always an unpopular move for the retail market. Nonetheless, the shaming symbolism of its extinction would have cost the Coalition far more than the modest price of a fix.

Sadly, other tales of Cuts Present, and Cuts Future, will not have such a cheering outcome in 2011. Hundred of local libraries remain at risk of closure. Most will have to depend for their survival on neighbourhood defences with little or no celebrity firepower. According to library campaigners, the current number of branches under threat stands (with mobile services included) at just under 400. Estimates of the total liable to fall under the axe as local authorities struggle to enforce spending limits rise to 1000 and beyond. A country-wide "read-in" in February will bring national visibility to the hundreds of piecemeal initiatives.

What's so fascinating is that local action for libraries has given the "Big Society" rhetoric its first major reality-check. Users of the service will not be content to enlist as passive volunteers who meekly substitute for sacked professional staff. If they accept duties, they will demand rights. The Coalition will learn that a culture of voluntarism breeds troublesome active citizens, not just do-gooding drones.

Still, the road will be hard, and the setbacks many. We enjoyed a short period, during the Noughties boom, when the language of economic utility and social benefit withdrew from the field of official culture. Briefly, "excellence" held sway. I was one of the many professionals convened by Sir Brian McMaster in 2007 to consult on a report into state support for the arts. The final document emerged almost miraculously free of the utilitarian calculus that had governed the language of subsidy and investment over two decades.

How long ago that feels. Boom gave way to bust. Now the arts must again prove their bottom-line credentials. And their advocates need smarter ways to make the case beyond celebrity tantrums (which will bring fast-diminishing returns) or shroud-waving prophecies of doom. We could begin with the most profitable British cultural industries of all. What social forces, for example, lay behind the creation of JK Rowling's multi-billion-dollar Harry Potter franchise?

Ask that question and you have to consider all manner of intangible public goods. They range from school library services and low-cost university arts degrees to – a crucial factor, this – a benefits system that let a graduate single mother scribble away in a warm café rather than forced her to take the first job.

Kneejerk outrage fades. The arts require sharper arguments. And, for this winter-hearted Coalition, accounting for the rich may cut more ice than pitying the poor. For 2011 will bring no more political free gifts of the sort Gove has handed to BookTrust and its friends.

Sign up for a night to remember

Never far from the headlines, Jamie Byng of Canongate (right) popped up over the holidays as the future British publisher of a memoir by Julian Assange of WikiLeaks. Less controversial is his ongoing role as prime mover of the inaugural World Book Night. On 5 March, as part of its million-volume giveaway, WBN will see 20,000 volunteers distribute 48 gratis copies each of a favourite book chosen from the list of 25. Thousands have already applied for this intriguing job, but any would-be WBN champions still have the chance to take part. Registration ends on 4 January, with forms and details available at the project's website, www.worldbooknight.org.

Botched job by an apprentice

I don't like bullshitters. I don't like time-wasters. Get used to it. So, Alan Sugar, your memoir What You See Is What You Get became Britain's bestselling autobiography in the week before Christmas. It had sales of 53,689 in that period. Well done. As I pointed out before (smug self-quotation becomes a bit of a habit), you do have a story to tell. You did rise from (almost) rags to riches. You met lots of colourful characters along the way. You argued savagely and fell out with many of them. And you ended up, bizarrely, as the world's biggest fan of Gordon Brown. None of which changes what I have to say. Your book is the most absurdly under-edited, over-indulgent, repetitive and narcissistic slab of self-advertisement ever to drop into the festive stockings of an army of avaricious wannabes. It bullshits; it time-wastes; it flannels; it whines. I don't like its arrogance, or its attitude. I don't care about your prime-time ratings or famous mates. You sold us a crock. Get off my shelf and back to the House (of Lords).

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

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