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 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.

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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.

Project news and call for papers

A quick update with the latest, to say that having carried out all the interviews, the summaries are now also complete, and we’re in the process of putting them on the University of Roehampton project website.

We’re also looking forward to the next project event at the Institute of Historical Research at Senate House, London, where we’ll be giving our talk on ‘Memories of Fiction’ and gendered reading in ‘100 Families’. All welcome, and more information here.

Finally, for now, we want to publicise the call for papers currently out, for the Oral History Society conference we’re involved in organising, ‘Beyond Text in the Digital Age? Oral History, Images, and the Written Word’. Proposals for papers are very welcome – please submit an abstract of 250 words or less by 18 December. We’re especially keen to hear about oral history and reading… Please spread the word!

Project news

Having started the oral history interviews last October, we’ve now met with seven reading groups from the Wandsworth area from whom we’ve talked with a total of 25 people. We wish to thank all the reading groups for making us welcome and for fascinating discussions and insights, and especially those who have volunteered to talk further. Each person agreed to be interviewed twice so we’ve gathered a great range of in-depth conversations about reading, and many of these interviews are now being made available on the University of Roehampton project website. I wish to thank Amy for all the thought and work she has put into carrying out the interviews with great skill, and the two excellent archive administrators, Alison Chand and Haley Moyse Fenning, who are completing interview summaries, listing all authors and books mentioned, for example, which are also available on the website to help navigate the interviews.

We are also involved in organising the next Oral History Society conference, to be held at the University of Roehampton 8-9 July 2016, entitled ‘Beyond Text in the Digital Age? Oral History, Images and the Written Word’. The Call for Papers is now available for which proposals for papers, panels, presentations, workshops, posters and displays are very welcome. We’re delighted to have the following keynote speakers offering talks at the conference: Mary Larson (Oklahoma State University), Alessandro Portelli (University of Rome), and Anne Valk (Brown University).

In other news, we’re happy to have been invited to speak about the project for the Oral History Society seminar series at the Institute of Historical Research on Thursday 5 November, and at the University of Bournemouth on Wednesday 11 November. Our talks for both occasions will be entitled ‘“She used to get lost in a book”: Approaching gendered reading through two archives (Memories of Fiction and 100 Families)’. For these talks we will introduce our project and discuss the article we’ve been working on, aimed at the Oral History journal. For this article we’ve revisited a large oral history project on which Graham Smith was a major contributor in the 1980s, called 100 FamiliesIn contrast to our project where we are seeking out people with a clear interest in reading (members of reading groups), these interviewees rarely identify as ‘readers’ and give us a chance to explore how reading plays a role across a range of generations and social classes. The topic of reading is a relatively small part of the 100 Families interviews: just a few of the many questions concern reading – eg. asking whether there were books in the house as a child and whether parents read to children. We’ve used NVivo to analyse these interview transcripts and will discuss how such a programme can be used to analyse such material, with a focus on reading and gender as a detailed case study.

Listen now: Podcast by Dr Gill Partington, ‘Taking it Literally: Mae Brussell and the Misreading of Fiction’

We were delighted to welcome Dr Gill Partington (Birkbeck, University of London) to speak as part of our Memories of Fiction seminar series in March this year. Gill is a member of Birkbeck’s Material Texts Network and has co-convened various network symposia, including most recently Perversions of Paper (2014).We’re very happy to say that Gill’s paper, ‘Taking it Literally: Mae Brussell and the Misreading of Fiction’ is now available to listen to here in full.

“On 16th March 1979 the radio talk show host Mae Brussell recounted reading a book whose contents provoked a violent, visceral reaction, making her nauseous and faint. The book in question was Alternative 3, an exposé of a sinister global plot at the highest levels. It was also, however, a spoof: a work of fiction, whose contents she misrecognised and quoted to her listeners as factual information. This talk examines her retrospective accounts of reading, concentrating on how her interpretations of Alternative 3 and other texts negotiate a complex and shifting boundary between fiction and non-fiction.”

 * Please note that the recording level is low in places so it is advised to turn your speakers up to full volume.

 

Listen now: Podcast by Dr Shafquat Towheed, ‘Evidence from the UK Reading Experience Database’

Dr Shafquat Towheed is Director of the Reading Experience Database (RED), an open access database and research project housed in the English Department of the Open University. It is the largest resource recording the experiences of readers of its kind anywhere. UK RED has amassed over 30,000 records of reading experiences of British subjects, both at home and abroad, and of visitors to the British Isles, between 1450 and 1945. On 8th February 2015 Dr Towheed presented a paper on the work of RED at the University of Roehampton, as part of the Memories of Fiction seminar series. We’re delighted to offer this talk as a podcast here, in its entirety. See below for an overview of Shaf’s paper.

‘Synchronous vs. remembered reading: evidence from the UK Reading Experience Database, 1450-1945 (UK RED)’
With over 31,000 records, the UK Reading Experience Database, 1450-1945 (UK RED) is the world’s largest single dedicated repository of the experiences of readers in the past. It catalogues the experiences of British readers at home and abroad (and visitors to Britain) over five centuries. Within the database there is considerable recoverable information about when a reading experience and also when it was recorded. While much evidence of reading is recorded at the time or soon after, significant sources rich in evidence of reading (such as memoirs, edited travel journals and autobiographies) are by their very nature, retrospective accounts of remembered reading.  This talk is in two parts: the first half explains how members of the Reading Experience Database team gather data, how we structure and record a ‘reading experience’, and how it is displayed. Specifically, I will be focussing on the ‘when’ of reading: when did the reading take place and how can we capture, record and display this? The second half of my talk looks at some of the methodological and interpretative issues around remembered reading vs. reading that’s recorded at the time or immediately after. We have the full spread of reading evidences in UK RED – from synchronous records of reading at the time they were taking place, to reminiscences of childhood reading many years later, but we have never scrutinized or categorised this chronological variances in records – or whether indeed, they should be thought of as two different types of evidence/reading experience. Pulling out some examples from the project, I will ask whether reading at the time and remembered reading are distinct evidential categories, requiring their own tools for investigation and analysis.

PhD scholarship opportunity at the University of Roehampton

We are delighted to announce a new fully funded PhD scholarship in addition to the two PhD students already enrolled as part of this project. The successful PhD project would relate in some way to the ‘Memories of Fiction’ project. Although it could be indirect, the connection would involve at least two of the following topics: memory, reading, oral history, life stories, emotion, book studies. For more information on this and other Vice Chancellor’s Scholarships at the University of Roehampton, and for contact details, please go to http://www.roehampton.ac.uk/vcscholarships and follow the link for Department of English and Creative Writing.

Deadline: midnight 5th May 2015. Please note that the competition requires details of the proposed project, so allow plenty of time to complete.

For the other PhD projects see https://memoriesoffiction.org/2014/11/19/project-news/

Possible projects may include an investigation into crossovers between oral history and literature, for example, and/or may make use of the oral history archive being created for Memories of Fiction. We will be very happy to discuss your ideas.

For enquiries and to discuss proposals please contact Dr Shelley Trowershelley.trower@roehampton.ac.uk.

Project news

Memories of Fiction has launched its new guest blog series, starting off with Ferelith Hordon’s wonderful reflections on her ‘Reading Memories’. Watch this space for future posts from our interviewees!

In other news, we’re looking forward to our upcoming seminars, starting on 18 February with Shafquat Towheed’s talk about the Reading Experience Database. These seminars are held at the University of Roehampton, are free and all are welcome.

The Call for Papers is now available for the Oral History Society conference which the Memories of Fiction team are co-organising with OHS committee: ‘Beyond Text in the Digital Age? Oral History, Images, and the Written Word’. We invite proposals for contributions to be submitted by the end of the year. The conference will be held 8-9 July 2016, and we have booked the rooms on the University of Roehampton’s Whitelands campus with its fine views of Richmond park!

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.

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

Project news

Battersea library - home of the Alvering book group.

Battersea library – home of the Alvering book group.

We’re happy to have started interviewing this autumn, and would like to thank the members of Alvering book group for taking the time to talk to us, and also two further book groups – who meet at Roehampton and Balham libraries – for inviting us to introduce our project to them. We have enjoyed some really interesting conversations with readers so far, and are looking forward to talking with more people.

We’re also excited that the two PhD researchers have started their projects, in association with Memories of Fiction: Alice Cook and Sarah Pyke.

Alice has a background in psychotherapy and creative writing, and will explore how remembered fiction from childhood lives on in the imagination of adults. She will look at how the stories we tell ourselves about our lives connect with memories of childhood reading and hopes to investigate the way in which these memories shape our sense of identity. She will start with a pilot project talking with individuals and go on to work with groups using auto-ethnographic narrative inquiry to work collaboratively with participants. There will be opportunities within her project for participants to work together in a sustained way to create new writing. This may include journals, life writing and short stories using these memories creatively to produce new stories. This project will be a blend of theoretical work on memory, imagination and the way reading affects us combined with life story work and creative writing. Alice’s research is funded by the University of Roehampton.

Sarah is interested in finding out more about LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) adult readers’ memories of childhood reading, and about the narratives these readers create from their childhood reading histories. She will use an oral history approach, inviting participants to take part in individual and group interviews in order to explore the dynamic, mutually constructing relationship between the reader, memory and the text. Recovering and archiving memories of childhood reading, including reading-against-the-grain, Sarah also intends to challenge the discourse of the innocent child reader, illuminating the ways in which texts for children and young adults can act as sites of resistance. Sarah’s research is funded by the AHRC.

The project has also acquired an archive administrator, Sheila Mercieca, who will be helping with the archive especially by carrying out interview summaries. Sheila completed her BA at Roehampton and wants to go on to postgraduate study in archiving.

We have begun working on the first project publication, and are looking at references to reading in the oral history collection ‘100 Families‘ (the longer title is ‘Families, Social Mobility and Ageing, an Intergenerational Approach, 1900-1988’), on which Graham Smith worked in the 1980s.

Finally, the podcast of Martyn Lyons’s talk on 4 September, ‘The Australian Readers Remember Project in retrospect, or why we (still) need an oral history of reading’, is now available here.

Uncovering Used Books in Blakeney

By Amy Tooth Murphy

It’s a fact familiar to all who know me that I can’t walk past a second hand book sale. There’s something about the promise of worn gems to be discovered that always seems far more intriguing than browsing new books. I recently, found myself in Blakeney, a small village on the North Norfolk coast, which has recently become home to my parents-in-law. Taking a morning stroll down to the harbour I passed by a man tying a hand-written sign at the entrance to a lane. On the cardboard sign, in black marker: ‘Used Book Sale’. Asking what time the sale opened he told me, ‘Well it’s pretty much always open as long as I’ve put it out’. Looking past him down the lane I saw about half a dozen cardboard boxes of books arranged on a couple of trellis tables sitting outside a cottage, alongside a table hosting various jars of jam. As I wandered down the lane he said, ‘The jams we have to set a price for but for the books just leave whatever you think is a fair donation’.

View through a narrow stone archway, down a lane. Book sale at the bottom of the lane. Signs in the foreground advertise used book sale and homemade jam for sale.

The accomplished second hand book browser becomes adept at sorting the wheat from the chaff. Large hardbacks are generally non-fiction, from Top Gear annuals, to Morris Minor repair books, to Readers Digest gardening almanacs. My business here is fiction, so I turn away from those awkward, oversized boards to the tightly packed boxes of paperbacks; worn, faded spines giving hints as to both decade and genre. It is a scientifically proven fact that no matter the size of a used book sale, there will always be at least one copy of Bridget Jones’s Diary. Here we have two. Plus a copy of the follow-up, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. The second hand devotee also tends towards altruism for other such perusers. I move The Edge of Reason, placing it beside a copy of the original, surmising that someone familiar with the original may then be tempted by the sequel, or that some fan may wish to buy the two together. In my browsing I also spot several other second hand standards: Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Jackie Collins, Maeve Binchy, John Grisham, John le Carré.

A relatively recent addition to the used book sale repertoire is, unsurprisingly, Nordic noir. I spot a Henning Mankell and read the blurb. It doesn’t sound like one I have already read. But perhaps I’ve seen an adaptation on TV? I keep the book in my hand and continue browsing. This particular sale has an interesting mix of popular and genre fiction alongside a fair number of canonical authors, including Henry Fielding, Gustave Flaubert and Henry James. I see a slim volume wedged between two paperback heavyweights. Teasing it out I find it to be a short reference to the works of Nietzsche. Now Nietzsche is someone I’ve never been able to read more than a few pages of at a sitting. I figure this intermediary may be able to elucidate for me. And who wouldn’t want an introduction to the works of Nietzche? That’s bound to come in handy.

Turning to another box I run my fingers over the spines, sensing as I do the previous readers, the previous browsers. Attempting to pick up titles at random (is there such a thing in the subtle process of book browsing?) I pore over detective fiction, potboilers, romances, fantasy, ‘chick lit’, thrillers, legal dramas. My eye alights on a familiar name: Mary Stewart. With a little thrill of excitement I pick up the book and turn it over in my hands, knowing this is one I have not yet read: This Rough Magic. This 1960s book has been given a 1980s makeover, with a watercolour of bold blue skies and bright white Cypriot domes on the cover. One of the joys of second hand books is their over layering of time, and times past. A reader in 2014 buys a book once owned by a reader in 1988, republished many years after its original publication in 1964. In this way Mary Stewart, and countless other middlebrow authors speak across decades. I consider my haul, pleased with the three books in my hand. Not every book sale gleans such excellent results. The Mary Stewart is without doubt the jewel in the crown. I have been working my way through Stewart’s oeuvre for about a year now. The sense of serendipity imbues this find with special significance. A year ago the name would not have caught my eye. I doubt I would have picked up this book. I briefly muse on how many Mary Stewarts my eye must have skipped over in the past. Of course I could simply go to Amazon and order all the Mary Stewarts I haven’t read. Or pop into Waterstones and buy them in their newly released re-editions. But where’s the fun in that? Where’s the sense of a find?

Cover of This Rough Magic, Coronet edition, as described above

Coronet edition of This Rough Magic, 1988. Photo of author’s copy.

The selection amongst these half a dozen boxes is obviously incomparable to even the smallest Waterstones store. But the possibilities somehow seem so much greater. There is no uniformity and – with the exception of good old Bridget – no repetition of titles. So different from the strategically placed stacks of new releases that greet you as walk into a high street bookshop. No ‘Staff Recommendations’ to guide your purchase. Only the subtle codes that lead you to pick up this and ignore that. Only the knowledge that someone, somewhere, has owned these books before. No doubt some have adorned bookshelves unread, until a final insistence on a clear-out propelled them by some means to this random setting down a Norfolk lane. But most bear the scuffs, cracked spines and turned down pages that speak of books held, put down, picked up, read, reread, carted around in handbags, suitcases and backpacks. And perhaps some of them bear the hopes of the owner; that someone, somewhere, perhaps a young woman in Norfolk visiting her in-laws for the weekend, will pick them up, take them home, and read.