Today, World Book Day is sponsored by UNESCO and celebrated in more than 100 countries across the globe, but did you know that the idea itself – and the very first Book Day – is a Spanish invention?

The Valencia-born writer Vicente Clavel Andrés came up with the original idea for celebrating Book Day (“Día del Libro” in Spanish) in 1923. Approved by the Spanish King Alfonso XIII three years later, the first Book Day was celebrated on 7th October 1926. In 1930, the date was changed to 23rd April in recognition of several important historical figures, including Spain’s St George, who is said to have saved a princess by slaying a dragon while mounted on a white horse. The dragon’s blood grew into a rosebush, and the future saint offered one of the red roses to the princess. St George is the patron saint of Catalonia, and his saint’s day has been celebrated there since 1436. In the past, tradition dictated that lovers would exchange gifts – a red rose for the woman and a book for the man – but it has evolved, and today books and roses are exchanged among lovers, family and friends.

Coincidentally, Miguel de Cervantes died on the same date (the original date set for the celebration, 7th October, was actually his birthday) as did Shakespeare, kind of (more on that later), making his birthday the perfect day for celebrating books not only in Catalonia but across the entire country as well.

In 1995, UNESCO designated 23rd April as World Book and Copyright Day, choosing the date because it was on this date that Cervantes, Shakespeare and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega all died. Other prominent authors, such as Maurice Druon, Haldor K. Laxness, Vladimir Nabokov, Josep Pla and Manuel Mejía Vallejo, were also either born or died on that date. It’s worth noting that, although Cervantes and Shakespeare did die on the same date (23rd April 1616), they did not die on the same day. At the time, Spain was using the Gregorian calendar and England was using the Julian calendar. Consequently, Shakespeare’s death actually occurred 10 days after Cervantes’, on 3rd May of the Gregorian calendar.

Each year, UNESCO and international organisations representing publishers, booksellers and libraries select the city that will serve as the World Book Capital for one year, effective 23rd April each year. This initiative converts the one-day celebration of books into an ongoing activity for the entire year aimed at encouraging the culture of reading, enriching the city by extending the cultural and geographic influence of books for its residents. Madrid was the first city to receive this honour, in 2001. This year, the city chosen is Tbilisi, Georgia and, in 2022, it will be Guadalajara, Mexico.

For many – might we say most? – people, this past year has been one of isolation and loneliness. In many places around the world, schools are closed, people are working from their homes or in highly stressful circumstances, they cannot visit family members; even walking outdoors has been prohibited. The mental toll of being forced to live alone or in overcrowded conditions without the normal social contact or activities we are accustomed to can only be quantified when we can resume our old lives.

Yet, for centuries, books have been a door to the outside world for millions, a bright light in the midst of darkness. They are a powerful tool to fight isolation and loneliness, strengthen ties among people, grow our horizons, stimulate our minds and boost our creativity. And it seems that people are realising this; according to UNESCO, the number of books read this past year has doubled in some countries.

This April – and all year round – set aside some time to read a book on your own and/or with your children. Start an online reading club. Read aloud together with housemates. Share the joy of exploring new topics, opening minds to other countries, peoples and ways of life. Learn about the world around you or immerse yourself in fantasy and escape to imagined lands far from the worries of today.

As the renowned US author Mark Twain said, “Books are for people who wish they were somewhere else”. Wherever you may be, you can be – at least for a brief moment — wherever you want: read a book!

Happy World Book Day!

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