Yesterday in my reading group we were talking about Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. A lively group of 15 people all seemed to have enjoyed the characters, the wit and the important and perennial themes it tackles. Linda, a fairly new member of the group who has lived half her life in the US, felt it highlighted the fundamental pragmatism of American people. Lots of people commented on the river as metaphor for constant movement and freedom.
Of course we also talked about the racism it highlights and attitudes between white and black people which remain as a subject matter for modern writing, as well as the now shocking un-pc language it is written in. We had read The Helpby Kathryn Stockett earlier in the year and there was much to be said about how black people can still be treated by land-owning whites. Clare, as she often does, compared it with her favorite William Faulkner and found it wanting.
What puzzled me as the discussion went on was why I hadn't read it earlier. I had ostensibly studied American literature at University (along with English) but had managed to avoid both Uncle Tom's Cabin and Huckleberry Finn, both widely regarded as seminal works, not only of anti-slavery literature, but also of American Literature in its entirety. Twain's house in Hartford, Connecticut pictured here, stands directly next door to that of Harriet Beecher Stowe and now I understand what an influence she must have had on his thinking and writing. I haven't thought about my university days for many years but this really made me wonder if we weren't pointed at these books because of some politically correct anxiety about the content or language. If that was the case, it was a pity and an omission.
But perhaps it was just me. Perhaps we were given options which I have now forgotten. All I remember is that for a very long time I immersed myself in Moby Dick and for decades have enthused about that as greatest ever American novel. In recent years its status in my eyes was challenged by Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, but I still think I would take MD to my desert island. But now that certainty has been shaken. Once again a reading group discussion has caused me to question what I thought I knew, admire other people's perception and judgement, bemoan my own ignorance. I know it has all been said before in other places, but when they work well, reading groups really can be an amazing source of inspiration and learning. And if you think Huckleberry Finn is a children's book you are in for a surprise.
As someone involved in helping to make "live literature " events happen, from time to time I take an interest in audience numbers at book and reading events. Perhaps its because I work within local government which is currently having to justify every penny of expenditure more than ever before, but am I alone in detecting a worrying trend? Are fewer people attending literature events? Perhaps fewer people are attending events in general? Is everyone so concerned about their security & their finances that they aren't going out as much. Or is it just that we have had a wet and disappointing summer?
Last week I was in Fife, not too far from Edinburgh and managed to squeeze in a visit to the Edinburgh Book Festival on its last day. The site was looking a bit bedraggled and muddy, but there seemed to be a healthy number of people there and the bookshop was busy. But I read in the press that 10,000 fewer people had attended in total this year (n.b. total was a healthy sounding 190,000) when compared with last, even though record numbers attended the Fringe. Was this all to do with rain?
Closer to home, a reading this week in a large and busy town centre library with a good track record of hosting successful activity, only attracted 5 people. And a forthcoming event which I would have expected to be almost sold out by now, has only attracted a quarter of its target audience so far.
Is this all coincidence, or is it a trend? It would be good to hear some other recent experiences.
Manchester Literature Festival is only a month way. I really hope people locally will be excited enough by the programme to come along to as many events as possible. View the programme here. For those who are part of a reading group or want to arrange a night out with a group of book-loving friends, there is a special Reading Group Ticket Offer.
The Offer: Book for 4 or more people and get all your tickets at the concessionary rate. The offer is available on the following events and can be booked via the website or by phoning our Box Office on 0843 208 0500 and quoting MLF Reading Group offer at the time of booking.
Manchester Sermon – Manchester Cathedral, Tuesday 11th October, 7pm Michael Frayn – Manchester Town Hall, Thursday 13th October, 5pm Roma Tearne – International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Friday 14th October, 6pm Emma Jane Unsworth & John Niven – Waterstone’s Deansgate, Saturday 15th October, 6pm Sacred Hearts – Manchester Cathedral, Sunday 16th October, 7.30pm Navtej Sarna & Shrabani Basu – Waterstone’s Deansgate, Monday 17th October, 6pm Mimi Khalvati & Carola Luther – International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Thursday 20th October, 6pm David Lodge – Whitworth Art Gallery, Friday 21st October, 7.30pm The Devil’s Garden – Manchester Museum, Saturday 22nd October, 1pm Catherine O’Flynn – Waterstone’s Deasngate, Saturday 22nd October, 6pm
Jane was the co-ordinator of Time To Read, a partnership of people working in public libraries in NW England, to develop the audience for reading.
She retired in August 2015 and is now very busy doing other things.