Delighted! 1,000,000 Britons prepare to enjoy a rattling good read

Twenty thousand people handed out a record number of tomes across the country for the first World Book Night

They say it is better to give than to receive. But Joan Hillyer and Marge Park claim that getting free copies of Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist has made their day. Simple acts of kindness, it seems, go a long away.

The surprised friends have just been handed copies of the novel by Jamie Byng, publisher and managing director of Canongate Books, as they sit down to lunch at Caffe Respiro in west London. The freebies are part of the inaugural World Book Night (WBN), a co-ordinated giveaway of one million books to the public across the UK yesterday.

As well as chairing WBN, Mr Byng is one of 20,000 "givers", each handing out 48 copies of one of 25 tiles. Organisers are also distributing 40,000 books in places that might otherwise miss out, such as hospitals and prisons. Joan, from Edinburgh, had bought a copy of Hamid's book for her daughter but never read it herself. An avid reader, she has already heard of WBN. "I thought, 'I would like one of those books, and how do I get one?" she says. "And it was choosing this place to come in!"

In part, WBN was inspired by World Book Day, which took place on Thursday and is primarily aimed at encouraging reading among children. WBN is for adults.

The 25 books, selected by a panel chaired by the broadcaster James Naughtie, are an eclectic mix. They include Nigel Slater's memoir Toast, the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy's The World's Wife, and Muriel Spark's novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Many of the selected writers, including Margaret Atwood, Alan Bennett and Philip Pullman, helped to launch the scheme at an event hosted by Graham Norton for 4,500 people in Trafalgar Square, London, on Friday night.

But yesterday was all about giving the books away, and I joined Mr Byng as he distributed his copies to unsuspecting members of the public.

Our first stop – Natale Algieri's Caffe Respiro near bustling Portobello Market – may seem a strange choice as it is an homage to film, its light blue walls adorned with the covers of DVDs. But as The Reluctant Fundamentalist is set in a café, Mr Byng feels his local haunt is the perfect choice.

By happy coincidence, Camille, a doctor – and another "giver" – immediately comes into the café after spotting our stack of books through the window. She is on her way to give away copies of Yann Martel's Booker-winning novel Life of Pi – a book Canongate published in 2002 – to people waiting in the A&E department in the hospital at which she used to work.

She also plans to give a copy to a homeless man, an avid reader, whom she often sees near Notting Hill Gate Tube station. But, lugging her heavy load in a rucksack and capacious carrier bag, she has already given away several copies. "There was one man who just started talking to me at the bus stop," she says. "He started telling me a story about a man who used to live in a cave in High Wycombe in the 1970s. It was bizarre. I said, 'Since you have told me a story, I'll give you one of these'. He said, you're not a Jehovah's Witness are you?'"

Isobelle, soaking up the sun outside the nearby café Kitchen and Pantry, is also initially suspicious of our intentions. "I was once given a book from church when I was a little bit younger," she explains.

WBN has its critics: some independent booksellers fear that giving books away will affect their trade at a difficult time for bookshops, which are already fending off competition from internet retailers, supermarkets and digital books.

However, the industry magazine The Bookseller revealed on Friday that 16 of the 25 titles handed out yesterday had actually enjoyed month-on-month rises in sales in February. It reported that, according to Nielsen BookScan data, 12 of the 25 sold more copies last month than in February 2010.

This is no surprise to Mr Byng, who believes WBN will benefit the trade. "The fact is, the more people who are reading, the more people who are going to end up buying books," he says.

Organisers had to apologise after the WBN website, which went live – behind schedule – on Thursday, was beset with technical problems. Some givers were inundated with spam emails; others – like Camille – did not receive the unique codes they were supposed to write in their books to allow them to be tracked. The idea is that future readers of one of the specially released WBN copies can log on to the website and fill in details about how they received the book.

Mr Byng claims the inevitable "teething problems" were frustrating, but partly a result of doing something "ambitious, high-speed, on limited resources". The event, which will spread to other countries next year, was put together in a matter of months, relying on the goodwill of the publishing and bookselling industries. "It's been driven by a complete passion for books," says Mr Byng, whose enthusiasm for literature means only one person refuses to accept his gift.

Graduate Ben Pull, 23, from Ipswich, accepts a book as he sips a coffee in the sunshine; Yolanda Hazell, 38, is given a gift for herself as she buys a present for a 90-year-old friend at independent bookshop Lutyens & Rubinstein in Notting Hill; while London-based ballet choreographer Ben Love, 33, takes the freebie – and the opportunity to pitch his own idea for a book.

Kelly Wakeling, 32, working with her father, Alan, on his fruit-and-veg market stall, says: "Usually people don't want to give you anything."

We pass Isobelle half an hour later to find her still sitting at the same café table. But this time her head is in a book – The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Even if not all one million recipients read their books, there will definitely be many more people enjoying new bedtime stories tonight. And thanks to Camille and my WBN copy of Life of Pi, they include me.

The Railway Man, by Eric Lomax

"I must have reread 'The Railway Man' a few times. It is amazing how someone in so much distress can still trace the guy who abused him and become friends."

Dave Berry, Television and radio presenter

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens

"My favourite has to be 'Great Expectations'. Dickens is one of the greatest writers and the book showcases great actors and wonderful humour. "

Richard Briers, Actor

Graham Greene

"I read so much it is difficult to put a name to my favourite. I greatly admire how Greene sets the scenes in his opening paragraphs; the images just stay with you."

Michael Bond, Author of the Paddington Bear series

David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens

"My all-time favourite book. Few things in life have made me as happy as the scene in which Betsey Trotwood sees off Mr Murdstone when he comes to reclaim his stepson.

Toby Young, Journalist and author

Short Stories, by Katherine Mansfield

"I read my first Katherine Mansfield story when I was 10. I became a massive fan. I caught up with her works when I was older and read her journals and letters."

Jacqueline Wilson, Author

The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow

"When you've finished, it seems there's nothing more to say. It's a work of humbling inclusiveness."

Martin Amis, Novelist

Beloved by Toni Morrison

"It is so moving and so cleverly written that it all unravels as you read it. Every single time I read it I get more out of it and understand it a bit more."

Jasmine Harman, Television presenter

Hart of Empire, by Saul David

"It's just such a ripping yarn, and a lovely read, and it takes me away to all these fun escapist places."

Sarah Beeny, Television presenter

1984, by George Orwell

"It shows what happens when people who think they know what you should think get into power. It's about spin, and that's very important now."

Billy Bragg, Musician and activist

Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert

"It's the greatest novel ever written. Reading it made me realise that the French language is one of the best in the world."

Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's ex-communications director

The Prelude, by William Wordsworth

"It is magnificent in and of itself, but also because it marks the beginning of the modern consciousness because it says, 'I am me, and I matter!'"

Sir Andrew Motion, Poet

Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev

"It is a masterpiece; one of the most beautifully constructed novels of all time. All the characters are memorable. The relationships are beautifully done but understated."

Anthony Beevor, Historian

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