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Could Dublin’s hugely successful literary promotion scheme be replicated in Wales.

17 Apr 2022 8 minute read
NORA Book Display Pearse St Library image by Dublin UNESCO City of Literature

Jon Gower

Visitors to Dublin in the month of April will perhaps be surprised to see a great deal of publicity being given to a single book. It’s everywhere, pretty much inescapable – present on advertising hoardings, in bookshop window displays, on street-spanning banners and in exhibition spaces.

The book in question is Nuala O’Connor’s NORA. It’s a novel about Nora Barnacle, wife and muse to James Joyce, chosen as this year’s title for the One Dublin One Book campaign which encourages people to read and discuss one book each year. The fact it coincides with the centenary of Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses makes it seem even more appropriate as his book is itself a celebration of the city.

The novel follows Nora from her first meeting with Joyce in Dublin through wild but impoverished times in a slew of European cities where James writes ‘n’ drinks and Nora offers her unwavering support.

It’s been said of it that ‘In sensuous, resonant prose, Nuala O’Connor has conjured the definitive portrait of this strong, passionate and loyal Irishwoman. Nora is a tour de force, an earthy and authentic love letter to Irish literature’s greatest muse’.

Nuala O’Connor was naturally thrilled to have her book selected for a promotion feeling “honoured and humbled that Dublin City Council has chosen NORA as its One Dublin One Book read for 2022, the Ulysses centenary year. I imagine Nora Barnacle would be as pleased as I am to see her contribution to the life and work of James Joyce celebrated in this way. I’m a proud Dub and this wonderful opportunity has me really looking forward to engaging with library users and readers, all over my home city, in April.”

The promotion will include discussions, readings, music performances, film screenings, book club events right across the city as well as One Dublin One Book events in London, Warsaw and Monaco and a week long serialization on RTÉ Radio.

Libraries are key

The One Dublin One Book scheme has been running since 2006 and over the years has included works of contemporary fiction such as Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way and Roddy Doyle’s The Barrytown Trilogy alongside classics such as Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds.

In 2019 the chosen title was Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls trilogy which, interestingly, had been officially banned by the Irish Censorship Board for many years as it dealt with proscribed subjects such as abortion.

Last year’s chosen volume Leonard and Hungry Paul – a tenderly touching novel portraying an ordinary friendship by Rónán Hession – was enormously popular and the statistics fully back this up.

Between January and June 2021, Leonard and Hungry Paul was the most borrowed Adult Fiction e-book in Irish libraries throughout the country. And the figures for the entire year show it was the most borrowed Adult Fiction book in Dublin City Libraries – both in physical format and in e-book format. It not only boosts borrowings for a single book, it boosts use of libraries per se.

Libraries are a key and central part of the success of One Dublin One Book. Several hundred physical copies of the book are bought by Dublin City Libraries each year – most of these are borrowed by book clubs across the city as well as individual readers.

The library system in Ireland also allows readers anywhere in the country to place a reserve on any book in the nationwide system in their local library and it will be delivered to them, often within a few days.

Therefore, although One Dublin One Book is led by Dublin City Libraries, the books themselves are available to readers throughout the country.

Dublin City Librarian, Mairead Owens, says ‘Every year we choose a book that we hope will capture the imaginations of the people of Dublin, of all ages and walks of life, and I know that NORA will prove a rewarding reading experience for all who engage with One Dublin One Book 2022.

“For the centenary of the publication of Ulysses, it’s important for us to honour the contemporary writers Joyce has inspired, as well as the woman who inspired him. “With the help of our many wonderful partners, we have created a programme of events this April that we hope will encourage many discussions and conversations.’ Individual libraries throughout the Dublin area organise their own book clubs with several reading NORA at the moment. There is indeed a very solid calendar of events to encourage people to borrow and read the book.

But it’s not just book borrowing that is boosted by One Dublin One Book. Nuala O’Connor’s novel is currently on the Irish Times bestsellers’ list.

The New York Times, meanwhile, listed the volume among 10 best historical novels of 2021 describing it as ‘A lively fictional rendition of Nora Barnacle, the minimally educated, blue-collar woman who propped up one of literature’s most challenging highbrow writers.’

Eason Book Display image by Dublin UNESCO City of Literature

‘One Wales One Book’

You’ll have gathered by now that this is a thoroughly successful scheme which might easily act as a template for something similar here in Wales. If we were running it this year, say, candidate titles might well include Manon Steffan Ros’ Blue Book of Nebo or the forthcoming biography of Gwyn Thomas by Daryl Leeworthy.

Hopefully you’ll all have a title that springs to mind. As a reviewer I’ve read many titles already in 2022 that deserve a wider readership and could easily make a list of a dozen titles.

Here a, let’s call it ‘One Wales One Book’ scheme might differ in being a promotion that could encourage people to read the winners of the previous year’s Wales Book of the Year award.

Or it might encourage the translation of a Welsh language book which isn’t currently available in English, such as, say, the historical novel Sgythia by the late Gwynn ap Gwilym which thoroughly deserves to be much more widely known. That would all be part of a conversation yet to be started.

Hopefully part of the value of such a promotion would be this very discussion that ensues in order to agree on a chosen title. Equally it could dutifully stick to the Dublin idea for sifting and selection as it’s obviously a tried and tested formula which has worked well for decades.

To become the one book Dubliners read in April a title should “have a connection to the city either through the author/s or content of the book and lend itself to the organisation of a wide range of associated events.

“It should have as broad an appeal as possible and be in print and easily available and have a publisher partner willing and with the capacity to be involved. The general public and library staff suggest titles and Irish publishers are also encouraged to make suggestions.”

That’s certainly a useful template and one can imagine the libraries, Welsh Books Council, publishers and Literature Wales enabling and hopefully enjoying that process.

Nora street bannersBanners image by Dublin UNESCO City of Literature

Nation.Cymru for its part would be happy to do its bit in terms of casting the net widely for the representation of voices and biggest range of strong nominations. It might be a book coming out next year or equally it could be a neglected classic. Hopefully even the nominations would encourage people to read the works.

The idea of people all over Wales reading and sharing their opinions of a single book has much to commend it. One can imagine groups of readers in different parts of the country twinning much as towns and cities do, and exchanging views, possibly visiting each other.

It would add extra kudos, sales and oodles of extra borrowings to the chosen book, but just as importantly start a nation-wide conversation about books and their values, placing a value of reading itself and creating a community of people throughout the country who have a single shared and hopefully enriching experience.

So, ‘One Wales, One Book/Un Cymru, Un Llyfr’ anyone?

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llyfrau fawr
llyfrau fawr
2 years ago

good idea

Y Cymro
Y Cymro
2 years ago

It can. Wales and the Welsh have a vast literary history from the father of native British history Gildas to the evocative penmanship of RS Thomas….

arthur owen
2 years ago

Dublin has been an important centre for literature in English since,at least,1890,nowhere in Wales has a similar position,for bettet or worse.

Bryn Jones
Bryn Jones
2 years ago

encourage the translation of a Welsh language book which isn’t currently available in English, sounds good and could increase the market place…

richard davies
richard davies
2 years ago

Great idea Jon. We need more of a national conversation about the literature of Wales.

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