I’m unembarrassed by my love of reading; I’d be more ashamed to admit I’m not an avid reader.
I don’t consider myself especially well-read though, which probably sounds ridiculous to those who know I teach English, studied literature at university and have never been without a book since I cracked the whole reading to myself thing before I even started school. I still remember the thrill of finally convincing my mum I could safely catch the bus to the big library in town after running out of books for my age group in the local library. I read either fiction, non-fiction or both every day because I have to, just as much as I have to eat. Occasionally, I admit, I may only manage a few pages before the book lands on my face and wakes me up after a particularly industrious day. But I don’t enjoy the pressure to meet the expectations of others because reading is how I relax, retreat and learn.
Unsurprisingly, I’m expected to have an immediate answer to the question: ‘Which is your favourite novel?’ That’s OK – it’s Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, if you’re interested. However, I’m also supposed to have an opinion on every recent bestseller and to be an authority on all works of classic literature – which really isn’t OK at all. If you’ve recently enjoyed or remember a work of fiction well, you might try to engage me in an awkward conversation which will probably fizzle out when you realise I either have no knowledge of your chosen book or I’d never choose to read the one you’re recommending. Either I’ll be slightly red-faced by my lack of expertness, or you’ll be by your lack of persuasion. I usually mumble something about how great literature speaks to you personally and my towering to-be-read pile.
We are not all the same, I understand that. Reading isn’t as sexy as other pastimes and there are many who haven’t read a single book they weren’t forced to wade through at school.
I’m between two worlds in my work: teaching teenagers who are struggling to achieve an English qualification but obliged to keep at it until they are nineteen lest the government comes to get them in the night and, in a parallel universe, the writing community who devour books hungrily, connecting with enthusiastic book bloggers/reviewers without whom indie writers especially struggle to promote their work in this digital age.
‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’
The first group is tough to excite. For them, reading is uncool (or whatever the current term is), a book is the worst possible present to receive and challenging them to even skim-read creative publications in return for prizes isn’t working. Compulsory English qualifications can steal reading pleasure when the escapism element is replaced by the requirement to analyse and evaluate. Trying to hook them when approaching 19th Century literature, I showed my students images of Charles Dickens and my heroine, Jane Austen and asked if anyone wanted to have a go at naming any of their novels. I had to back up and give clues until we were eventually discussing the films The Muppet Christmas Carol; Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (who was THAT aimed at?) and the TV series Downton Abbey (good effort, Sam – not one of Jane’s though).
Over in the reading and writing community, the chance to analyse and evaluate is relished. Reading doesn’t have to be a solitary experience – unless that’s what you want. Reading groups, book blogs, book fairs and cafes in bookshops all forge a sharing space for the widely-read along with the opportunity to add a personal review to a bookseller’s website which benefits other readers and the writer. These days, once you’ve done the industry research and perhaps joined a writing group for support, the chance to publish your own work is wonderfully wide open.
Recently, I think I spotted a bridge between the two worlds. Unlike the Harry Potter generation who are now graduating, working and starting families, my experience of millennials is that they are seemingly unable to easily engage with a story unless watching it or taking part via a games console, whereas the Potter Posse are beginning to share literature with their own children and some are using their innate techno-savvy to self-publish their own stories.
And the winner is …
In the meantime, I could possibly be the only one in her class who bothered to take out at least three books this term from the college library and write a review of one. Silver lining: “The winner is … me!”