April 23 is Canada Book Day, as well as World Book and Copyright Day, devised to raise awareness and interest for books, to promote reading, publishing, and — in the case of the international day — the protection of "intellectual property" (an unfortunate euphemism that leads to all manner of faulty reasoning about knowledge.)
The day is intended to be a celebration of books as a key instrument of knowledge and freedom, as well as an opportunity to consider the contribution of books to humanity's wealth and cultural heritage. Canada Book Day was first organised through the Writers' Trust of Canada, a national, charitable organisation supporting anglophone literature. Which — for the second year in a row — has no plans for any special events this year worth communicating to the general public.
No other organisation or level of government has stepped in to lead celebrations, and the day has been preceded by no promotion whatsoever. In fact, most Canadians are unware the day has supposedly been the focal point of Canada Book Week since 2003.
World Book and Copyright Day on the other hand is organised by UNESCO, which adopted the day at its General Conference in 1995. The date was selected as it had been celebrated since 1923 as el dia del llibre (The Day of the Book) in Spain. There, a thrifty bookseller in Barcelona — the publishing capital of both Catalonia and Spain — had begun to promote April 23, also known as el dia de la rosa (The Day of the Rose) or St. George's Day, with a combination of books and roses.
The idea was ostensibly to honour the nearly simultaneous deaths of Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare; the date also happens to be the date of birth of other prominent authours such as Halldór Laxness and Vladimir Nabokov. It has since become one of the world's largest book swapping events, with half of the the total yearly book sales in Catalonia (estimated at 400.000 titles) taking place on April 23.
This year, UNESCO hopes to highlight "the need to preserve creativity from piracy" during the day, hoping to impress readers worldwide that "there can be no book development without respect for copyright". Yet the agencies' botched website mainly reveals a most casual interest in the issue, perhaps fostered by the assumption (particularly in the so called "developed world") that the business of books is thriving, and reading therefore in no need of special support.
Despite the arrival of e-books and the ascendency of electronic media, printing is still a booming business with more than half a million publishing houses worldwide. Rather than replacing the traditional media the new technologies seem only likely to augment and complement printed reading matter, presenting no more a threat to its existence than elevators do to stairs.
Certainly, in the so called "developed world" books and reading do not appear imperiled. Only 31% of Canadian adults reported not reading a single book for pleasure in 2007, while those who read regularly consumed more than 20 titles during that year. On average Canadians spent 4.5 hours reading per week, though with roughly 50,000 titles published annually in Canada that's barely time to keep abreast. Little wonder the Writer's Trust perceives no need for a day of special events and celebration.
Nevertheless, the glowing numbers in Canada and elsewhere obscure the glaring imbalance and extreme difficulties in accessing books that persist worldwide. Even in Canada access to books could easily be threatened: in 2006, Indigo with 230 stores nationwide accounted for 44 % of domestic book sales — 67% if online, mail-order, and sale at university and college bookstores are excluded. Which potentially means that if Indigo choses not to carry a book the publisher of that title loses access to half of the Canadian retail channel.
Since special events appear to be few and far between this coming Canada Book Day, and World Book and Copyright Day, one suggestion would be to simply read at one's own behest. Another, as the date alludes to the Catalonian tradition of book swapping, would be to gift someone a book. Or to visit a local library — maybe even bring a contribution or two to its collection.
Note: this is a slightly updated version of an article originally published on April 21, 2009.