The reader of novels differs from those who immerse themselves in a poem or follow the course of a play. Above all, he is alone, unlike the member of an audience, but also unlike someone reading a poem. The former has subsided into the crowd and shares its response, while the latter is willing to turn into a partner and lend his voice to the poem. The novel reader is alone and remains so for a good while. Moreover, in his solitude he takes possession of his material in a more jealous and exclusive way than the other two.
When Walter Benjamin wrote these words in the Ibizan spring of 1933, the spread of popular reading groups was sometime in the future. It is estimated, for example, that in 2015 there are at least 10,000 reading groups in libraries in England and Wales alone. There are even online sites such as http://readinggroups.org/ that can help identify local groups for those seeking to join in the fun. Last week two of the Memories of Fiction (MoF) team met with members of one of those library reading groups While Amy had met most of the participants before, this was my first chance to begin to get to know the readers behind MoF.
What an interesting bunch they turned out to be. And what a great start to the second phase of our project.
Our research depends on the enthusiasm and willingness of people not only to take part, but also to actively contribute their ideas. Therefore, the first thing to say is a large thank you to the nine who came along and spoke so passionately about reading. This was our first venture in working with a group of readers and it has provided the MoF project with some rich insights.
Researchers almost always base a study on a hunch. Sometimes we might already know the answer, but often we only have a vague idea of what questions we might ask. All right, we try to build on earlier research and winning a grant from a research council (thank you again AHRC) involves a great deal of reading, preparation and thought. However, in trying to find something new and using novel methods to do the work takes a bit of faith that it will all turn out all right. As researchers, we also need to be open to refining and in some cases rethink our initial research questions and hypotheses. This is a roundabout way of saying that new research is scary. However, working with the group last week was not only pleasurable but also illuminating.
The areas that we now know that we can explore include how people recall past group interactions and individual contributions. The ways in which particular books seem to stick in memory while others are almost forgotten. We were particularly interested in hearing not only how people bring their experiences and cultural perspectives to a group, but also the ways in which discussing reading provides individuals with new personal resources. Then there are the memories of reading group tastes and how they are negotiated and changed.
How much pleasure these readers are having when they emerge from their solitary reading and meet together to remember their absorption. I strongly suspect that Walter Benjamin would have approved.
 Thanks to George Severs for kindly bringing this piece to my attention. Benjamin originally published it in the Frankfurter Zeitung under the pseudonym Detlef Holz. Republished as ‘By the Fireside’ in the New Left Review, November/December 2015, 53-57.