Big City Read is a national initiative where a city is encouraged to select one book and encourage the public to read it together. The underlining intention is to combat illiteracy, and bring reading to those who might otherwise miss out. The UKs appalling literacy statistics, combined with a survey that found 35% of boys no longer find reading interesting, were a driving force behind the creation of Dawn of the Unread. So, the City Read is a project I fully endorse.
I’ve been asked numerous times what my favourite book of all time is and I always reply, I’ll tell you on my deathbed when I’ve read a few more. It’s an impossible question to answer. So selecting a book that represents your city is equally problematic. In 2013 Bristol and Glastonbury chose Gavin Extence’s Somerset-based novel The Universe Versus Alex Woods. It’s notoriously difficult for debut authors to get the same kind of media exposure as established authors and so was a great way to help kickstart his career. This resulted in 1,000 free books being distributed. The publisher Hodder and Stoughton benefitted from the additional publicity and audience engagement by giving out free copies to people for the most imaginative readers feedback. There was also book groups created at libraries, a twitter account (@thingsalexknows) as well as a dedicated website. The book would go on to be a Richard and Judy Summer Book Read as well as win Waterstones 11 literary prize.
This year London opted for Ben Aaronvitch’s Rivers of London which was published in 2011. It features Peter Grant, a young police officer who encounters a ghost and is later drafted into a specialist Met unit that deals with magic and the supernatural. To promote the book, Aaronvitch visited 33 libraries (one for each borough) in 30 days. A blog and map detailed this adventurous book tour and was complimented by an interactive performance from award winning theatre Look Left, who trained wannabe recruits as sorcerer-detectives in Westminster Reference Library. The library is the site of Sir Isaac Newton’s house.
Nottingham has wisely decided to get in on the act thanks to the City of Literature team and is promoting ‘Nottingham Stories’, in conjunction with Five Leaves Bookshop; Bromley House Library and Nottingham Writers’ Studio. This is a short story collection showcasing seven local writers, two of whom have produced comics in our serial: Alison Moore (issue 13: Will You Walk Into My Parlour) and John ‘Brick’ Clark (Issue 2: My Long Walk With Slav). The others writers are: John Harvey; Shreya Sen Handley; Megan Taylor; Paula Rawsthorne; as well as a short story from the late Alan Sillitoe, specially selected by his widow, Ruth Fainlight. Alan, of course, features in my contribution to Issue 12: For It Was Saturday Night.
There will be a dedicated website where readers can share their stories or submit their own take on Nottingham life. The authors will also be reading their stories and offering writing workshops at schools, prisons, reading groups, community centres, libraries and a wide range of other venues. You can catch all of the writers at Lowdham Book Festival in June; with Nicola Monaghan reading the Sillitoe story.
John Harvey, author of the Resnick series , said: “Any way of getting good writing, good stories into the hands of new readers has to be a good thing, surely? And the Big City Read should do exactly that. And not simply good stories, but stories, by and large, about the city, written by people who live, or have lived there and who know it differently but know it well. I was chuffed to be asked to take part; just as I’ll be chuffed to be there in print alongside Alison, John, Megan, Paula, Shreya and the indomitable spirit of Alan Sillitoe.”
Defining Nottingham as a city is difficult. It’s traditionally a factory city but now a lot of the large employers have left, as have the communities that got flattened during inner city developments during the 60s and 70s. We’ve never been particularly good at bigging ourselves up either, though we have no problem telling others what they’re doing wrong. We’re built on sandstone, which is what made us master breweries before other cities. But now it’s coffeeshop chains that dominate the horizon. And then there’s our multiculturalism, with Pakistan and Poland accounting for our highest levels of immigration. How do you define a schizophrenic, contradictory city like this? Perhaps short stories are a good start…
Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.
- City Read London (cityread.london)
- Big City Read: Until You’re Mine (libraryofbirmingham.com)
- Nottingham City of Literature website (nottinghamcityofliterature.com)
- David Belbin interview (leftlion.co.uk)
- The Literacy Shed (literacyshed.com)
- The Adventures of Library Girl (librarygirl.net)
- So I Turned my Blog Post into a Video, Advice for Writers, the Trance Remix (nicolamonaghan.com)