The literary world had its own "white smoke moment" last week when it finally announced the name and sponsor of a brand new prize for fiction. The stated aim of the Folio Prize is "to celebrate the best fiction of our time, regardless of form or genre, and to bring it to the attention of as many readers as possible". Some people won't like it, but of course anyone who objects to having excellent fiction brought to their attention doesn't have to take part.
Its sponsor, the Folio Society, has ignored repeated announcements of the imminent death of the paper book and continues to produce beautiful editions of fantastic novels that people just keep buying. Meanwhile, the Women's Prize for Fiction, formerly the Orange Prize, will announce its own new sponsor in the summer. Everybody wants in on the book prize market. It's so exciting that, at the Folio Prize's launch on Wednesday, somebody fainted. Perhaps it was a marketing exec from Amazon.
Poor Amazon. (Not really.) The backlash against the tax-avoiding scumbags continues, with successful authors joining readers in helping to support real bookshops. Ian Rankin has written an essay to appear only in copies of his novels sold in proper shops. Alexander McCall Smith has included an exclusive short story in copies of his novel Trains and Lovers that are bought in Foyles. And, last week, Joanne Harris joined in, with an extra chapter in paperbacks of her Peaches for Monsieur le Curé when they are bought in Waterstones. Readers benefit from DVD-style extras. Writers benefit by propping up the shops that do the real work to sell their books. Amazon doesn't benefit, but hey, it benefits from all the roads and educated workers and infrastructure that we taxpayers pay for, so we won't lose too much sleep over it.
However, ebooks generally are not doing badly. Last week, the Office for National Statistics revealed its new "shopping basket" of random goods by which it will measure inflation. White rum and ebooks are in; champagne and taps are out. I'd still rather sip champagne while reading a paperback in the bath, but if modern people prefer ebooks and mojitos, at least they are reading.
And they are. Earlier this month, a survey for World Book Day found that 71 per cent of parents – 10 million families – make time regularly to read to their children. Modern children are as at home with iPads as they are with turning pages – though not in my house, where any child who leaves snotty fingerprints on a screen will be sent up a chimney. But there are few things more thrilling than seeing a child beginning to love books in any form. Today, The Very Hungry Caterpillar: tomorrow, the world.
Learning to read can mean the difference between success and prison. (Three-quarters of prisoners have a reading level below that expected of an 11-year-old.) But learning to love reading can open a door to riches beyond, well, Amazon's wildest dreams. In a good year for bad news, here is something to celebrate. Let's raise a white rum cocktail to reading.