Today will be a very notable day for those of us with school-age children: World Book Day. This is a phenomenon more or less totally new to me. Although World Book Day is a truly international event (originally World Book and Copyright Day), in the UK and Ireland it takes place separately. Of course the highlight is the distribution of books in schools and the custom to come in fancy dress (Azi today, is a triceratops).
Watching the parade of superheroes, Harry Potter characters, suddenly-found Wallys, and the odd Darth Vader this morning, I felt a real swell of appreciation for the cultural value of literacy here in the UK. Interest in reading, publishing, and in a culture of bibliophilia seems to be considerably more pronounced here than in most of my experiences in America. Unscientific as it may seem, I have found the UK to be a profoundly pro-book place to be.
That’s excellent news for me, and I think for all Jews. One of the things that distinguishes us, and one of the things I always make sure to emphasise to school groups, is that Judaism is a religion more or less obsessed with literacy. The primacy of text, interpretative techniques, linguistic intrigues, and the endlessly complex aesthetics of books themselves are all key elements of Jewish life.
Among observant Jews, publishing houses are treated like film studios, and arguments over cloth bookmarks, leather bindings, deckled edges, and the best weight and colour of paper are endless. We are undoubtedly a book-obsessed people- that’s visible in every synagogue (in which The Book is front and centre) as well as in non-religious cultural events (like Jewish Book Week).
I think this is something to be incredibly proud of, and I think that we should encourage a love of books as much as we can. It is our literacy– with text and with language– which has so often defined, and saved, us. An affection for books, for reading, for story-telling, and for debate are all honed and developed by virtue of our insistence on a culture of literacy and literature.
To some extent, every day is World Book Day for us. I am always available to give recommendations for reading- whether Jewish or non-Jewish, fiction or non-fiction. We have an extensive and growing library at SAMS – and an active book group as well! Today, whether sanctioned by the UN or not, whether you’ve dressed up special or not, happy World Book Day, from one bibliophile to another.