Category Archives: Book Groups

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).

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Launching guest blog series!

We’re delighted to introduce our new series of guest blogs, written by some of the readers being interviewed for the project. The first of these is written by Ferelith Hordon, the facilitator of Alvering reading group. Ferelith has been a children’s librarian for over 30 years, and also a judge of the Carnegie and Greenaway Awards. We are very grateful for her reflections on her memories of fiction.

READING MEMORIES

What are my reading memories? Indeed, what do I mean by this – or what do I think when presented with the phrase? Am I talking about remembering what I have read? Or is it remembering the effect the reading of particular texts had? Is it the memory of what “reading” meant for me as a child and what I felt about it as an activity? Perhaps all these aspects are entwined.

I have no memory of learning to read – though I do not think I am alone in this. Family mythology says I was reading before I was three years old (my mother said by two….I wonder!) It is possible; my father also read very young, forced to learn for himself by a barren nursery. However, I was not reading Dickens or even Blyton at this early age. Living in Sudan, there was no library to raid. I remember Old Lob the Farmer (lovely coloured illustrations) – a series to teach reading though I did not see it as such, an OUP series retelling tales from Greek and Roman mythology and another of folktales from around the world. There was Orlando and Babar and Ursula Moray Williams’ Good Little Christmas Treethese may have been part of the summer breaks back in Scotland.

Time and memory are slippery. When was I reading those wonderful Edwardian tomes that belonged to my father’s childhood (they had his bookplate inside the covers)? I remember vividly When they were Children (Amy Steedman), In the Once upon a Time (Gask), Secret’s of the Hills (Craig) or Our Island’s Story (H. E. Marshall) – books that opened the window onto history and geography and were read and reread by me, crouching on the floor by the bookcase in the spare bedroom of our Perthshire home. Or what about Bee (Anatole France) – a strange choice but it had wonderful illustrations by Charles Robinson, or My days with the fairies with illustrations by Dulac? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. They were always there in the background. What is interesting is that I am clear that the first book I remember reading as a novel is The Lion, the Witch TheLionWitchWardrobe(1stEd)and the Wardrobe (Lewis) and I am convinced that at that moment I became a Reader. I would have been eight (quite late you might say) but Reading is not (from my observation) something that can be precisely charted. Whatever it was about Lewis story, it was the door through which I walked hungry for more.

Reading for me is not just the narrative; I enjoy reading as a physical activity but I am quite lazy and very unadventurous. As a child I reread and reread the books that really hooked me in. I would decide what I wanted to feel – if I felt up to tears I would read Heidi from cover to cover, if too much sadness was not in order, I skipped her banishment from the Alp. I rarely reread the first Mowgli story. I found it too heartbreaking. This may be where I developed the life-long habit of reading the end of the story first !!!! It didn’t put me off reading at all. I joined the local library for myself and my sisters and brother; I chose all the books but do not remember any guidance from librarian or parent. I would walk up with the dog who would be tied to the library door while I went in to sit on the floor to read. I would only stop when the dog began to protest (usually about an hour or two later), then I would remove myself to where he was tied and continue reading. No one seemed to think it strange. I read my way through Sutcliff (my all time favourite), Welch, Harnett, de Angeli, Jane Oliver, John Pudney, M. Pardoe…

Then there is a break – exams, university – took over – I have few reading memories of these years – Gombrich was discovered and Propertius. Then I became a Children’s Librarian – and have a whole new world of memories to tap into.

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Reading Memories by Ferelith Hordon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Memories of Fiction Out and About: A busy start to September

Do book group members get nervous when they take their seats and prepare to share their thoughts on that month’s book? After having a cherished book ‘all to themselves’ is there a moment of trepidation as it’s released to the wider world of the book group for critique?

We’re hoping to pose these questions – and many more – as we interview book group members. And if the answer to both questions is ‘Yes’, then we may know something of how they feel. This week we’ve had a sense of Memories of Fiction going from the speculative to the suddenly very real as we’ve got up in front of various audiences to share our aims and hopes for the project. After keeping the project ‘all to ourselves’ in the first month as we plan and organise, we’ve now had the opportunity to gather some feedback from others, and, very excitingly, meet our first book group.

On 4th-5th September we attended the Story of Memory conference at the University of Roehampton, organised by the Memory Network. Shelley and Amy introduced the project on a panel entitled ‘Memory and Reading: A View from the Sidelines’, alongside papers from Dr Alison Waller (University of Roehampton) and Dr Sara Whiteley (University of Sheffield). All three papers worked really well together, drawing fascinating threads about both memory and reading and how people discuss reading in groups.

On the evening of 4th September we were delighted to host Professor Martyn Lyons (University of New South Wales) as the guest speaker for this month’s IHR Oral History Seminar. Professor Lyons spoke on his and colleague Professor Lucy Taksa’s groundbreaking work, Australian Readers Remember, now celebrating its 22nd anniversary since publication. A podcast of the talk is now available here.

Cover of Australian Readers Remember, published by Oxford University Press in 1992. Painting of scantily dressed woman looking provocatively towards the viewer, holding a newspaper in front to cover her upper body

Oxford University Press, 1992

Professor Lyons, currently on an extended visit to the UK, was then able to join us on Monday for the first meeting of the Memories of Fiction Advisory Group. The group, which aims to meet once a year throughout the project, brings together some of the foremost scholars working in reading and memory. The conversation was lively and engaging, and a huge boost to us as we continue to formulate and refine our research and prepare to begin in earnest.

Speaking of which, perhaps the highlight of the last week was our visit to our first reading group. Last Friday we visited Battersea Library (worth a visit to see the beautiful arts and crafts style reading room) and sat in on the Alvering book group. This month they were discussing Dancing to the Flute by Manisha Amin. We were thrilled to get a really positive and warm response to the project and delighted that over half the group signed up to take part as interviewees. The group, now in its fourteenth year, meets once a month, at 12pm on a Friday. Many thanks to Ferelith and the group for welcoming us.