Author Archives: Graham Smith

A tale of two libraries

It is striking how different book groups organise themselves. Take, for example the two that meet in Putney and Roehampton public libraries. They seem to be alike. Both are in the London borough of Wandsworth; they are about a mile and a half apart; within walking distance of one another. They meet monthly, are overwhelming female in membership and both have professional librarians making reading suggestions and facilitating discussion. There similarities end.

Readers in the Putney Library group follow the standard practice of picking a book which they all read and then discuss. The books chosen for deliberation are usually those that have attracted positive press reviews and include novels short-listed for major literary prizes. The discussions that follow are reminiscent of university seminars. In contrast, members of the Roehampton Library group each individually select a novel to read and then discuss their choice with a view to convince fellow members that their choice of book is worth reading. Roehampton readers are much less likely to restrict themselves to fiction endorsed by recognised literary critics and commentators. While Roehampton’s reading would include science fiction, horror and historical family sagas, Putney’s would not.

Individual interviews with members of both book circles provides evidence of important variations in their past lived experiences. The Putney group are in the main retired from occupations that involved critical discussion and most recall working in some capacity or another as professional readers, including teaching. In contrast, most of Roehampton’s members have been employed in a range of unskilled or semi-skilled occupations with periods of unemployment. Some remember coming late to literacy and then making up for lost time by voraciously reading later in life.

Putney Library

Attribution (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) Mark Pack, Putney Library, 2010.

The individual life histories are in tune with statistical surveys undertaken in the Borough. Putney’s library sits at the centre of East and West Putney, with East Putney being one of the more affluent wards in England. Roehampton in contrast houses the much less well off.  Since the inter-war years Putney’s residents have been traditionally drawn from the higher professions, including today’s elite of bankers, entrepreneurs and footballers.  E.M. Forster and Nigel Williams are on the area’s long list of former and current notables. While Putney has retained its open green spaces, and remains popular with runners and cyclists, Roehampton’s once similar landscape underwent dramatic change in the twentieth century. The ward claims one of the earliest council housing developments in Britain, now called Dover House Estate as well as one of the largest housing schemes, the Alton, with 2,000 flats on 100 acres. Built by the London County Council in the 1950s, it provided the bleakly dystopian backdrop for Francois Truffaut’s 1966 film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.[1] Thirty-two years later English Heritage awarded the scheme status and more recently the estate that still dominates Roehampton has been praised as a fine example of the British Modern Movement – or ‘New Brutalist’ school of architecture – mainly by people who don’t live there. Roehampton library sits at the edge of the estate.

Roehamption Library

Attribution  (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) Graham Smith, Roehampton Library, 2016.

The two localities are also dissimilar demographically. Published government statistics, suggest that Putney’s residents are much more likely than Roehampton’s to have been educated to a higher standard and have either retired from or continue to enjoy more secure, interesting and better paid jobs. The same source suggests that the people of Putney are also much more able to defend their public services than those living in Roehampton.[2] Unsurprisingly, in their group interviews, Putney’s readers were keen to discuss their concerns about reductions in their library provision. At the time of the interviews, the Roehampton circle were meeting around a table in the middle of the library, with other readers wandering past. This was an arrangement put to and successfully resisted by Putney’s group and instead their meetings had been relocated to the library staff’s common room.

However, it isn’t just occupation and environment that provides contrast between the two adjacent wards. The population of Putney have long enjoyed much better health than those living in Roehampton. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, official statistics were recording significant differences in life expectancy. This amounted to an additional average of 6.8 years of life for females and 8.9 years for males in least deprived areas of Wandsworth compared to the most disadvantaged.  Such variances are amongst the widest in London for both men and women, with the two most frequent underlying recorded causes of death in the under 75s being cancer and circulatory disease; mobidity patterns more prevalent amongst the less well off. [3] Little wonder that members of the Roehampton group frequently observed that ‘life’s too short’ to read a novel that cannot hold the reader’s attention; regardless of the praise it might have received from literary critics.

1969324_447325358732738_791772825_nAt a time of continuing austerity, public libraries are in danger of being perceived by politicians as a luxury. Yet, the social value of libraries and their buttressing of the public good are recurring themes in our research. No matter the groups we worked with, our libraries remain significant in the everyday lives of both the better and the less well off. As community resources in localities as diverse as Roehampton and Putney, public libraries provide space and most importantly the expertise of librarians helping in turn to promote discussion. Readers understand libraries as places where civic society can flourish. Libraries continue to be important in the production of informed citizenship. But libraries are under threat. One final point: the risk from cuts and resulting diminishment is greater to libraries in places such as Roehampton, despite the population’s more obvious need for resource and thirst for reading

Graham Smith

[1] See here for a scene from the film set on the Alton (last accessed 8th July 2017).

[2] Extracted from the Index of Deprivation are available from the UK Government Website English indices of deprivation 2015 (last accessed 8th July 2017).

[3] Wandsworth, Key messages 2014: Health inequality, (last accessed 8th July 2017).


Our first Reading Group meeting

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.[1] 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 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.


Members of the Reading Group were not keen on Science Fiction or Fantasy

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.

Graham Smith

[1] 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.

Appointment of Research Associate to Memories of Fiction Project

Shelley and I would like to thank all those who applied to work on the Memories of Fiction project. With more than sixty high quality applicants, it was tough deciding on four to shortlist and interview.

We are, however, very pleased to announce that we have appointed Dr Amy Tooth Murphy as our research associate. Amy has in-depth experience of  researching popular perceptions of literature, reading and oral history.

Her most recent project has been with Toby Butler, at the University of East London’s School of Arts and Digital Industries (History).  The Bethnal Green Memorial Project has attracted a great deal of news interest, including from the BBC.

Last year Amy completed her thesis at the University of Glasgow: ‘Reading the Lives between the Lines: Lesbian Oral History and Lesbian Literature in  Post-War Britain’ (supervised by Prof. Lynn Abrams (History) and Dr David Shuttleton (English Lit).

Graham Smith

On January 6 next year, Amy will be speaking at an Oral History Society/Institute of Historical Research seminar. ‘The Continuous Thread of Revelation: Chrononormativity and the Challenge of Queer Oral History’, RHolden Room, 103, on the first floor of Senate House.