April 23 is a traditional day of celebration of books and publishing, an important day in the international annual calendar of book publishing events. Read about how April 23 became “The Day of the Book" and UNESCO's World Book and Copyright Day, and about the other book celebrations those traditions inspired.
"The Day of the Book" - Rosy Beginnings
The Day of the Book in the Catalan provinces of Spain had their roots in the celebration of the patron saint of Catalonia, St. George ("St. Jordi"). Since the Middle Ages, St. George’s Day, April 23, has been celebrated in Barcelona and the other Catalan provinces (as well as in many other countries, including England, where he also the patron saint).
Saint George was a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity and was martyred for this faith. During the Middle Ages, soldiers coming back from the Crusades also brought back the legend of St. George slaying a dragon.
According to the story, a terrible dragon terrorized a town, demanding that the inhabitants sacrifice two sheep a day to keep him fed. Once the sheep were gone, the townspeople were forced to sacrifice their children, chosen each day by lottery.
The king’s daughter lost the lottery and was awaiting being devoured by the dragon when Saint George happened by and slew the beast with his sword. The dragon’s blood spilled to the ground; on that spot a rosebush grew. Saint George plucked the rose and gave it to the princess.
For many years, a man’s gift of a rose to his girlfriend was the accepted form of celebration of Saint George’s Day, sometimes called “Day of the Rose” or “Day of the Lovers.”
"Lovers" to "Libres" on The Day of the Book
During the 1920s, a Catalonian bookseller noted that April 23 was also the date of both William Shakespeare’s and Miguel Cervantes’s deaths (both in 1616). In a brilliant, enterprising stroke of book promotion, it was determined that a book would be the perfect gift to be given in exchange for the rose— and El Dia de Libre ("The Day of the Book") was established.
Today, the El Dia de Libre tradition is firmly entrenched in Barcelona, Spain’s publishing capital for books in both the Catalan and Spanish languages. There, books are exchanged for roses and vice versa, regardless of sex — “a rose for love and a book forever.”
During Barcelona’s April 23 St. Jordi / Book and Rose Fair, the hundreds of stalls along the famous, tree-lined pedestrian thoroughfare, La Rambla (or Las Ramblas), are filled with florists and booksellers. Some sources estimate that nearly half a million roses are sold, and it is estimated that half of all annual book purchases in Catalonia are made on April 23. Other literary events, such as author readings, are also scheduled, and the date is also a popular one for launching new books into the marketplace.
UNESCO Declares World Book and Copyright Day
Inspired by the Catalan El Dia del Libre, in 1995 The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared April 23 to be World Book and Copyright Day. The goal of World Book and Copyright Day is to promote reading, publishing, and the protection of intellectual property through copyright around the world.
UNESCO encourages the support of authors, publishers, teachers, librarians, and the media to help bring the World Book and Copyright Day celebration to the greater reading public, and provides resources such as downloadable posters.
There is sometimes a designated focus for World Book and Copyright Day events, often to coincide with other UNESCO initiatives. Some past themes have been "Books and Translations," Evolution of Book Production, from Writing to Digital," "The Link Between Publishing and Human Rights," etc.
World Book Day and World Book Night in the U.K. and Ireland
Since the mid-1990s, World Book Day in the U.K. and Ireland has promoted children’s books and reading by giving kids a token that is exchanged for a book. Due to the late April conflict with the U.K. and Ireland school calendars, World Book Day was shifted to the first Thursday in March.
World Book Night, geared to celebrating books and promoting reading to adults, was established in the U.K. and Ireland in 2011 and continues to be held on April 23.
World Book Night U.S.
While there have been World Book and Copyright Day observances throughout the years in the United States, in 2012 a formal World Book Night celebration of April 23 was inaugurated; the first U.S. World Book Night featured in the form of a special million-book giveaway.
After a couple of years, however, the event failed to gain traction and World Book Night U.S. was discontinued.
Of course, books continue to be celebrated in the U.S. in other events, such as Independent Bookseller Day.