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.

Continung Education: Journey to the Centre of the Book

Amanda Boston writes to remind us of her Continuing Education course ‘Journey to the Centre of the Book’ which will run over five monthly meetings starting Wed 10th October from 2 – 4 p.m at the University of Liverpool. Amanda says:

We’ll explore the significance of place, both real and imaginary, in five wonderful novels spanning a century. Each two hour session will focus on reading, discussing and enjoying a number of selected passages. Jane Austen’s 1816 masterpiece Emma will be our departure point and personally I can’t wait to journey to Highbury and to reacquainte myself, in your company, with Emma Woodhouse, Mr. Knightley and friends.  It would be great if you can read Emma before the first meeting but don’t worry if you can’t manage – copies of the passages, and various other goodies, will be provided.

In subsequent months we’ll be reading Hardy’s Return of the Native, Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, George Eliot’s Middlemarch and finally visiting Joyce’s Dublin in his short story collection The Dubliners.

I am really excited about teaching this course as some of my most vivid reading experiences have been with C. E. classes both as teacher and initially as a student.  looking forward to meeting you.

Here’s the link to Continuing Education at Liverpool. The closing date for signing up is Monday 1 October.

Links We Liked for 21 September 2007

Here are some of our favourite articles and links from across the web in the last week or two:

A quick mention for The Library Project and the book swap taking place at mello mello on Slater Street Liverpool today from 7pm to 9pm.

Over the last couple of years I’ve found myself spending more time reading and researching online, using ‘gated’ services such as JStor but also the excellent Google Books and Google Scholar as well as online newspapers, library catalogues and other sources. One of the problems with that is keeping track of the material. This week I came across Zotero, an addon for the Firefox web browser which not only allows you to store material for reading later but will generate bibliographies, link between research materials and even link with documents elsewhere on your computer. I’m going to be reviewing Zotero over the next few weeks, but in the mean time here’s the link to the website. I recommend taking a look at the tour. You will need to be using Firefox, but but Zotero runs on Linux, Mac, and Windows computers.

I’ve been a fan of Clive James ever since I stumbled across his essay on Raymond Chandler, ‘The Country Behind the Hill’ in the school library circa. 1981. The Times Literary Supplement has a review of his most recent collection of essays Cultural Amnesia that sums up James for me. Despite his broad brush strokes, which can be so frustrating, James, in the words of reviewer Adam Bresnick is an ‘excellent, passionate reader’.

On the subject of detective fiction this week saw a flurry of reviews of Andrew Lycett’s biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This review by Philip Hoare in the Telegraph highlights the paradoxes of Conan Doyle: his creation of an archetypal rational detective versus his spiritualism; his sympathies for groups opposed to Jewish immigration from Germany before World War 1 and for humanitarian causes. It is also a little sniffy:

Holmes was also a Bohemian drug addict and melancholic who sometimes resembles an invention of Oscar Wilde. Indeed, in another of his telling anecdotes, Lycett describes how it was shortly after meeting Wilde that Conan Doyle wrote The Sign of Four – his second Holmes adventure, with its own specifically Wildean character – whilst Wilde went off and wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray.

And finally The Guardian is today running an article on writers’ rooms that is well worth a look, if only to see how diverse writers’ workplaces need to be.

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Paul Muldoon: New Yorker Poetry Editor

The New York Times reports that the New Yorker magazine has appointed Irish poet Paul Muldoon as its poetry editor. The New Yorker is an important magazine for poets, printing work by established and new writers and presenting it to an exacting and influential audience. Muldoon aims to be “absolutely open to the poem that one simply did not expect to have made its way into the world and somehow suddenly falls on one’s desk”. The selection procedure can not have been as easy as David Remnick makes it sound:

“It’s not just a matter of picking the best poet you can think of,” said David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker. “It’s also somebody who would know how to be in touch with an enormous range of poets, and that narrows it down a little bit more. And also somebody who’s not in Alaska.”

Mr. Remnick added that the selection of Mr. Muldoon, who had his first poem published when he was just 16, did not represent “some sort of radical aesthetic or theoretical shift.”

He added, “It’s not as if we went from a structuralist to a post-structuralist or a Beat to a conservative.”

Here’s the link to the New York Times article in full.

Cold Pastoral: The Security of Nouns

An item on the radio this morning was discussing the security situation in Iraq and describing the ferocity and ruthlessness of the security services as they struggle with insurgents, snipers, and roadside bombs. Nothing unusual there you might think. Except that there was an insight into the language used by security personnel which was revealing of how deep Iraq’s crisis has become and what it means for us in our comfortable lives. Apparently security personnel are allotted ‘nouns’ to defend, by which they mean ‘people, places, and things’, an elementary school definition from years ago. Of course linguists no longer limit their definition of ‘noun’ to these three items. Are the security services no longer defending ‘freedom’ or ‘democracy’? What about ‘beauty’ or ‘truth’?

This seems a withdrawal of sorts and a sign of desperation. Or perhaps our appointed forces are simply not able to comprehend–through stupidity or lack of education or both–the complexities of what they are really protecting. Either way this is a frightening tell-tale. When you are reduced to defending people and property alone you have reached the back of the cave and there is no way out. Though he could not have anticipated the horrors of twenty-first century guerilla warfare, Keats knew a thing or two about how limited this world-view is and what its human consequences might be:

Ode On a Grecian Urn

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thou express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunt about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter: therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.


Posted by Chris Routledge

Reader Editor Guest Blogging

In the run-up to the publication of his book on Bernard Malamud Reader editor Philip Davis has been blogging for More Intelligent Life. Here’s a roundup of his provocative and interesting posts over the last few days:

In which I am bored by otherness. A post that will strike a chord with many academics for whom conferences involve sitting through papers that seem to be driven by a need to insert the current buzz-words rather than discussing the real issues.

God’s blog. Reflecting on the unfinished and unpolished and the need to record the glittering fragments that shine through.

I Was Brodsky’s Minder. A highly amusing post about the visit of poet Joseph Brodsky to Liverpool.

Out Loud. On the joy to be had from reading aloud.

Bootstrapping. In his fifth post Philip Davis reflects on the role of the artist and the True Gospel of Otherness.

Posted by Chris Routledge


Sylvia Plath Reads ‘Daddy’

This astonishing short film in which Sylvia Plath reads her poem ‘Daddy’ comes as quite a surprise. Not only does she sound quite unlike I imagined–she could have stepped right out of The Philadelphia Story–but her delivery of the poem is remarkably accomplished. Poets are not always the best readers of their work, but Plath’s own reading is tremendously complex and fragile, for all its force and coldness:


Cheltenham Literature Festival 2007

The Reader is going to this year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival to bring you news from the festival direct to this blog. The focus of this year’s festival is ‘What does change mean to us?’ and there will be reports on the dynamic debates, critical conversations and inspiring ideas that the festival guests have to offer. The festival is up on our calendar and I’ll add specific events as tickets are confirmed. Hopefully I’ll be able to interview some of the speakers formally (although I look forward with great anticipation to ‘bumping’ into them more informally), to get a unique insight into their experiences of the festival and ask how important books and reading are to their lives. I’ll be jumping at every opportunity to ask the literary folk in Cheltenham for their book recommendations, top tips on who to keep an eye on and will report it all back via The Reader Online. The best way to get updates is to subscribe our RSS feed.

By Jen Tomkins

Online Writing Course: Season of Inspiration

Helen Whitehead writes to tell us about an online writing course that she is running with fellow tutor Sharon Rundle. Helen and Sharon were involved with the now defunct trAce online writers’ community which was one of the first of its kind and was organised from Nottingham Trent University. Helen says: “The “Season of Inspiration” entirely online course is back again with our trademark supportive, friendly, online writing community and all-new inspiration!”

Join us in making the most of seasonal colours and scents, metaphors of the season, place and time to provide inspiration for writing that’ll see you through the rest of the year. We offer support, exercises and creative bolstering. You’ll experiment with and collaborate in inspirational walks, visual writing, meaningful journalling and capturing the sights and sounds of the season. Dip in and rediscover your creativity. Previous students will find all-new materials for this course and new students are very welcome (from anywhere in the world).

8th October – 10th December 2007
9 weeks of inspirational exercises and prompts plus a chance to concentrate on a piece of your own work and get feedback.
Cost: £150/AUS$370

To register please email

More information here.

Sefton Festival of Literature 2007

Running from Wednesday, 19th September until Sunday, 30th September, Sefton Festival for Literature 2007 has a programme appealing to anyone interested in various aspects of writing. Performances, poetry readings, exhibitions, workshops, writing surgeries and competitons are amongst the highlights of a packed schedule, which includes an appearance from Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, screenwriter and novelist John Mortimer, and poet and novelist Jackie Kay.

Here’s what Cllr Lord Ronnie Fearn, Sefton’s Council Member for Leisure and Tourism, has to say about the festival:

The Sefton Festival of Literature will be a fantastic celebration of all things literary and show that creative writing, poetry and performance offer something for everyone to enjoy. Experts on fiction writing, publishing and poetry will be on hand to offer free advice to budding writers, while artists will be leading bookmaking workshops.

The Sefton Festival of Literature is a two-year project and this year’s inaugural event will set the scene for the 2008 celebration. I’m sure this will be a wonderful event and I hope that everyone takes the opportunity to get involved.

The events will be held at Southport Arts Centre, Atkinson Art Gallery and, Crosby Civic Hall and Plaza Community Cinema in Waterloo. To find out more information and book tickets, visit the Sefton Arts website.