What? Are you reading?

 

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A classic, 1 non-fiction, 1 trusted novelist, 1 shortlisted for a prize

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.

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My favourite wall in Krakow

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!”

#amreading

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The Granny Grievance

A one-woman protest against the G-word

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Firstly, let me get this straight:  I have nothing whatsoever against grandchildren. I won’t even bother trying to convince you of that by telling you how wonderful and loveable mine are – much more so than anyone else’s in fact.  My grievance as a British grandmother is how anyone yet to reach the grandparent milestone uses the word ‘granny’ as a default derogatory term to illustrate how something is old-fashioned, irrelevant and dull.

And it’s often inaccurately used to mean elderly.

Sometimes, when others also in their 50s congratulated me on becoming a grandmother, there was an undertone of ridicule. “Congratulations Granny” implied I had suddenly somehow managed to become elderly without them and was officially slipping into senility.  My response was usually, “I’m not your granny.” And anyway, my grandchildren call me ‘Nana’.

Even my colleagues had to be warned: “Granny in the room,” at a recent planning meeting when the G-word was used to stress how our resources should be up-to-date and accessible for our teenage students. It’s important to point out when others show ignorance or bigotry lest their ill-informed attitude should be allowed to influence others and perpetuate the myth that all grannies are ‘little old ladies’.

There’s been much discussion recently about female stereotyping and discrimination.  I’d like to add another layer to this abomination: age.  Mature ladies are offered even less respect than other women and girls.  I’m not asking for special esteem, but I’m neither silly nor unconnected and shouldn’t dismissed.

The Granny Grievance
Nigella Lawson in a cardigan. Photo by Justin Lloyd/Newspix

If you must know, I was born in the same year as Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp. I’m only three years older than Halle Berry. I’m younger than Iman, Sheryl Crow and Nigella Lawson and many others you wouldn’t expect to see in a pinny and pearls knitting cereal.

I’m at a funny age which doesn’t fit the granny stereotype: too old to be Jennifer Lawrence and too young to be a sassy senior such as septuagenarians Jane Fonda or Lily Tomlin (above).  The older lady, older than me that is, seems increasingly unlikely to be labelled as beside the point with the likes of Helen Mirren (72) and Diane Keaton (71) captivating us all.  I think I’ve fallen through a gap though.  Nobody seems to know where to plonk the fifty-several female in popular culture.

One fifty-three year-old reader told me: “What you write needs to be read.”  And what is there for people like us who enjoy contemporary fiction, but can’t stomach any more romantic shopaholic stories which focus on the twenty to thirty-nine year-old’s dilemmas?  I would have thought women in my age group read more than them, but we are even overlooked by studies.  I remember skimming a report on the reading habits of different age groups.  The findings showed American teenagers read books on their phones (if that’s not an oxymoron) and that 30 – 39 year-olds were less likely to be reading electronically.  Those older than 65 weren’t reading much at all by comparison.  Er excuse me – I’m over here in the demographic you ignored with a pile of books, a Kindle and … oh never mind.

Some of us are running marathons and companies.

Little secret: I was asked by therapist and counsellor Lisa Etherson what I thought should be included in her soon-to-be published book about the love lives of the over 50s.  One of my points was that we are are under-represented in popular culture, fuelling the misconception that all grannies are comical, crusty creatures who can’t keep up with the conversation.  I reminded Lisa that when we aren’t having sex, some of us are running marathons and companies.  And then we still might find the energy to run around after our grandchildren.  Just don’t call us grannies!

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If you can recommend any literature (or films) with an interesting, midlife, female protagonist, I’d love to hear about them.  I’ll bet you find it difficult.  Better still, watch this space … I’m writing one myself.