Reading and Readers Through the Ages

In celebrity and not-so-celebrity interviews in Sunday newspapers one of the most common questions is a variation on “what books are by your bedside?” It seems we are fascinated by what people read. The Reading Experience Database takes this further, exploring the tastes, attitudes, and experiences of readers between 1450 and 1945. Researcher Shafquat Towheed has been in touch to announce that the previously closed database is now freely available:

Have you ever wanted to know who read Byron in the nineteenth century? Or what first time readers of “Jane Eyre” made of the novel? Or what kind of books servants preferred to read? The Reading Experience Database, the world’s largest archive of the experiences of reading in the British Isles (or by British subjects abroad) from 1450 to 1945, is now available to everyone.

… At present, RED contains nearly 10,000 entries describing the reading habits, tastes and practices of British subjects at home and abroad from 1450 to 1945. The majority of this number have been edited and released for public searching and viewing. During the next year, visitors to RED will be able to conduct general keyword searches across all the fields in the database and will also be able to refine their searches by the century of experience, by the name and gender of the reader, listener or reading group, and by the author and title of the text being read. Searches in a single field or in a combination of these fields will yield significant, interesting and even surprising results!

The project seems to be in constant development and is well worth a bookmark, but it will also improve as the number of participants grows. If you come across written evidence of someone reading, whether in a diary entry, a letter, or any other kind of text, why not record it in the database? The Reading Experience Database can be found here. More information about the project can be found here.

Philip Davis Interviewed on Bernard Malamud

Our very own Philip Davis was interviewed on Dublin radio station Dublin City Anna Livia tonight and the programme is replayed tomorrow (Tuesday September 11) at 11am. There is a live stream for the radio station though sadly no “listen again” feature. You can find the link to the stream here.

The instructions are for Windows users only (shame on you DCAL) but if you’re using another operating system copy and paste the following url into your media player of choice:

http://www.dublincityannaliviafm.com/DCALFMStream.asx

Linux users will need to have the Windows Media codecs installed. Mac users should install the Flip4Mac plugin for Quicktime then use Quicktime to play the stream (File–>Open URL).

Reading on Wheels

I’m not an especially acquisitive person. I hate shopping and flashy gear doesn’t impress me much with its flashiness. But I am deeply covetous of a “reading wagon” like the one featured on the Shedworking blog (via The Times):

Apparently reading wagons were used by circus artistes and eventually became what we now call caravans. Having one of these things as a place to sit and read would be really wonderful. I’m off to fetch my hammer and nails:

Like a revolving shed, one of the beauties of being on wheels is that it can be moved during the year or even during the day, however the whim takes you. During the autumn it has to be near the house in order to be plugged in to the mains electrics. Loudon has used the wagon as a guest room but has now started making them to order, including as a garden office.

Here’s the link again to the Shedworking piece and to the article in The Times.

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Keeping Track of Library Books

Let me confess. I love libraries. I love almost everything about them, from the faint smell of dust to the sound of distant voices, the gentle clatter of book trolleys and the click-thump of the date stamp. Back when university libraries were quiet, empty places where you could do serious work, I did serious work in them, including a PhD thesis and some of the first things I ever published. I even wrote two high-speed, strictly-for-the-money, no names no pack drill history books in a university library, scribbling away for weeks like a student with all the deadlines for an entire degree course coming down at once. It was great fun.

But one thing about libraries annoys me: having to take the books back before a certain date. It’s not so bad if you have one library card and you visit regularly. But if you have three or four library cards, plus a couple belonging to your kids, it can be difficult to keep track. Even more so if the loan periods are all different and the numbers of books large. My staff library card at the university library, for example, allows me to take out more books than I can lift for an entire year. And while my local library cards only give me five for a fortnight, I have two cards. My daughter’s card allows her to take out books for a fortnight and DVDs for a week. You see where I’m going with this. We pay fines.

Let it not be said however that I am a person who sits back and puts up with something when a complex technological solution is only a few clicks away. Many libraries these days allow you to manage your borrowing online, much like a bank. But what would really help would be a way of getting the due dates from the library website to my calendar. Enter a clever piece of Mac only software called Library Books, which can be downloaded from here. The developer asks for donations if you like using the software.

Library Books places a little star in the taskbar and a number to indicate the books you have on loan. Click on the star and you get details of all your borrowings from multiple libraries. You can add the information to the Mac’s calendar, iCal, with a single click, to receive reminders in good time about when your books should be going back. Setting up the system is easy. Several UK library systems, and many others from other countries are listed as presets and you can also set up unlisted libraries using the “generic” library types. University of Liverpool is an INNOPAC system, for example which is listed. You enter your user name and password, and Library Books connects to your library account. You can even list several library accounts at once, which is very useful. If your specific library isn’t listed the developer will add it as a preset if you ask nicely.

I’m going to see how I get on using it. Here’s the link to Library Books again (Mac users only).

Posted by Chris Routledge

Mersey Minis Giveaway: Liverpool 800

Today marks the 800th anniversary of Liverpool’s town charter and publisher Capsica is celebrating the event by giving away the entire 5,000-copy print run of Longing, the third in its Mersey Minis series. Mersey Minis contain writing about Liverpool and the River Mersey from the past 800 years. The final two volumes, Loving and Leaving, will be launched in September and November respectively. Names already featured in the series include Charles Dickens, John Lennon, Will Self, King John, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Courtney Love, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Tracey Emin.

Copies of Longing, which includes new writing about Liverpool by over 80 authors, will be handed out at over 50 different venues across Merseyside on August 28th and The Reader is helping to give away copies of the book. Everyone who emails us on Tuesday 28th August will get a free copy of Longing. Just send an email including your postal address to us using the contact form in the menu above. All new subscribers to The Reader magazine will also get a free copy of Longing until all our copies are gone. Deborah Mulhearn, editor and compiler of Longing is featured in The Reader Number 28, which will be published at Christmas 2007.

More information about Mersey Minis is available here. You can subscribe to The Reader here.

Public Domain Audio Books: Librivox

Audio books account for a small but significant part of the market for books and with the rise of the mp3 player the opportunities for listening to literature are ever expanding. If you want recent books then the decent thing to do is pay for a copy and keep the writer in business. But for out of copyright work Librivox could be the way to go. Librivox offers free public domain audio books. One of the great things about the project is that it is all done by volunteers and the work is shared.

Hugh McGuire, founder of Librivox, had this to say in an interview on the Creative Commons website:

The immediate reason was practical — I was going on a long drive and I was looking for free public domain audiobooks on the Net; there weren’t very many, and I thought there should be.

But other than that practical need I wanted to address, LibriVox came out of a few conceptual strands. The first was the idealism of the free software movement, and it’s pragmatic success. Here was a parallel system (to the proprietary software system) built almost entirely out of volunteer effort, and hugely successful to boot. I was very interested in how free software ideals and methodologies could be applied to non-software projects: could the same sorts of ideas be used in the real world?

Here’s the link to Librivox.

Posted by Chris, Powered by Qumana

Get Into Reading Gets Into TV

Book Quiz

Get Into Reading‘s Ridgeway Library group will be appearing on BBC 4 tonight in a brand new literary show.

The Book Quiz is hosted by David Baddiel. Tonight he oversees as Joan Bakewell and Richard Herring face John Simpson and India Knight in a battle to see whose literary knowledge reigns supreme.

You can catch the reading group members at 11pm tonight, or when the show is repeated on BBC 4 on 7th August at 8pm. For more details click here.

Getting the Nation Reading

by Katie Peters

At The Reader we were excited to hear that 2008 is to be a national year of reading. In a week in which there have been calls for television to be rationed for children, it is encouraging to see the government taking steps to give a higher profile to reading for pleasure.

During the previous ‘year of reading’, ten years ago, teachers, school librarians and governors organised thousands of reading events in schools, including author visits, book festivals and reading clubs. The initiative, however, aims to bring the wonderful world of books not just to schoolchildren but to everyone, from toddlers to grandparents, from avid readers to those who are less enthusiastic. A big part of this is encouraging families to spend time reading together, as Alan Johnson, Secretary of State for Education, points out:

One of the most important things a parent can do to boost the educational chances of their children is to read to them. Simple, yes – but in a busy world it doesn’t happen enough. 30 per cent of parents don’t read regularly with their young children – a vital but missed opportunity to boost their children’s development. We watch an average of four hours’ television a day. If we read to our children for just a tenth of this every day, we’d give their chances a massive boost.

Many of us remember the joy of being read to as a child, but with channels such as CBeebies dedicated to young children available throughout the day, is the classic ‘bedtime story’ being replaced with half an hour in front of Teletubbies?

At The Reader we are working to promote reading for pleasure. Project worker Kerry Hughes has been working as ‘Reader in Residence’ at Weatherhead High School since September, reading to and with students. Another group that she works with at St James’ Library in Birkenhead have begun their own parents’ reading group at the school their children attend. During term time parents meet to read books and poems together. They share the reading aloud and discuss their difficulties and enthusiasms. Reading has become so important to the group that during school holidays they have organised sessions in which they read together with their children. These have been a huge success. Kerry says of the group,

Initially, the women lacked confidence in reading and were reticent when it came to expressing an opinion. For a year we have read together, struggling together over difficult poems and challenging texts and the group has bonded and strengthened. Confidence has soared; one of the women is now working as a librarian at her son’s school, another is just about to start A-Levels and two have set up a reading group for parents at their children’s school.

The prospect of a whole year dedicated to getting the nation excited about reading is wonderful, but in reality, it is a daunting task. The year will have to be as much about changing attitudes as it is about getting books into hands. Jane Davis, director of The Reader, comments:

The power of the story or poem is not just for children. Our Get Into Reading project is offering a model, which I hope will be taken up nationally, of inclusive and intense reading experiences for people of all ages, abilities and educational backgrounds. Read-aloud reading groups can help create community.

When I think about the reaction in the eyes of the 93-year-old dementia patient on hearing the old familiar words of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ read out to her last week, I join Alan Johnson in hoping that the national year of reading ‘will bring about another step-change in attitudes to reading for purpose and pleasure’, and look forward with anticipation to the effects that this change of attitude could have.

Facing a Challenge

Mary Weston, a project worker with The Reader organisation’s Get Into Reading project, describes the challenge of her work with young people excluded from school.

I am a Get into Reading project worker, and my job is to facilitate community reading groups. My groups tend to be with ‘difficult to reach’ clients: young people, homeless men, and recovering drug users. I don’t actually find the people I work with difficult; in fact I usually get on with them more naturally than I do with the general public, who scare me.

The most challenging group I have encountered has been the excluded students on the ‘Behaviour Improvement Programme’ at Tranmere Community Project. This is an age group (11–14) I’ve never worked with professionally before. You do encounter a lot of initial resistance: ‘I hate reading’, ‘Reading’s gay’. The composition of the group can change from week to week and ability levels vary. They are mostly boys. I actually find them easier, once you get past the macho posing. Girls tend to be more sophisticated in their resistance, and I suspect girls who reach the point of being excluded are more likely to be seriously disturbed. Some are bright and potentially ‘academic’, others bright but dyslexic, there are anger problems and attention-span problems, some are hungry for attention and some don’t want to know you. I really didn’t have much hope for this group.

Fortunately the ethos at the project is flexible. We agreed that the main aim was to give the young people a positive experience of reading, and that this wouldn’t be helped by forcing students to be there, or by making the sessions too long. I spent time before and after the groups sitting in the snack bar with them, or playing cricket. I learned that the books that worked were those that got moving quickly. As soon as they get hooked into wondering what happens next, a kind of trance descends on the group. It almost frightened me, the first time it happened: ten lads all turned towards me wide-eyed and on the edge of their seats.

The Barrington Stoke (website makes a sound specially to annoy you) series of books for young adults has been a really reliable source of texts. They deploy violence, crime, and other street themes to catch the reader’s interest, and they spring into action from page one. But the dilemmas they treat open up space for emotional and moral reflection; there’s an essential decency about them. I’d recommend them for any reluctant readers.

For the past couple of months I’ve been blessed with a fairly stable core of four or five lads who have come to tolerate and (dare I say it) even enjoy the weekly session. Because the group culture is now for rather than against reading, more aggressively resistant young people can be incorporated into the group without scaring the others off admitting they like it. The session length has stretched up to 45 minutes, and on occasion it has gone over the hour, when they are keen to finish something. Today’s my last day with them before they finish for the summer, and I’m feeling sad about it. Of course I hope they’ll go back to mainstream school and make a success of it next year, but I’ll be sorry not to see them again.

Mary Weston

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