Friday, 7 September 2012

Poetry and more

What a busy week this has been- and one of the best sort at work. On Tuesday I was able to bring together my network of 20+ NW library staff with 9 of the 12 poets we are about to promote in a new project called Poetry Places 2. We had a great day talking about poetry and the challenges of encouraging people to borrow and read it. We heard  9 poets read some of their work, bringing their voices to life. We also recorded them reading the specific poems we will be promoting. There's still a lot of work to be done spreading the word, fixing events and making the poems as accessible as possible across the region, but a splendid start has been made.

Yesterday was also busy with other things. I held the 4th of 5 planned Dickens' reading group meetings, this time to discuss my favourite so far Hard Times. Weather and holidays kept a few people away- I hope it wasn't Dickens fatigue, but the die-hard readers who did attend,  managed an interesting discussion about the novel- is it humorous or not? What does it tell us about Dickens' own attitude to marriage, women, industry, the north?
I was heartened by some readers who not only intend to stick with this Dickens reading project to the end, but also want it to go on longer. We are already planning an extra December meeting to discuss A Christmas Carol.

From there I went to the beautiful Portico Library to hear Madeline Miller, winner of this year's Orange Prize, talk about her novel The Song of Achilles. For me this was a model book event. Just the right length, interesting and thoughtful questions, an engaging and enthusiastic author who made me want to read her book.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Reading Rewards

Very busy over the last couple of months organising Reading Rewards, an adult reading challenge running across NW Library services over the summer and up to 31st October 2012.
Children have been challenged to read more for a number of years via the Reading Agency's Summer Reading Challenge. There is also the Six Book Challenge for emergent readers.

Reading Rewards  now being tried out, is  for the main body of adult readers who perhaps want to broaden their reading or read more than usual over the summer. Time To Read is offering shopping voucher prizes for readers who read 3, 6 or 10 books from different categories of book. Library staff will be monitoring which the most and least popular categories are over the course of the promotion. Perhaps this will lead to some new and intersting insights into adult reading habits in this region.

One of the main purposes of Reading Rewards is to offer the opportunity for adult parents and carers to demonstrate to children that reading can be enjoyed at all ages. Many parents encourage their youngsters to take part in the Summer Reading Challenge. Now , at least in this region, they have no excuse for not borrowing something themselves and could be rewarded for doing so.

Full details of Reading Rewards can be found on the Time To Read website, along with a printable version of the entry leaflet.

Friday, 18 May 2012

How to kill a reading group???

I was surprised this week to both hear on the radio and read in a newspaper,  that a sure-fire way to kill a reading group is to read Middlemarch. Apparently a definitive list of book club rules has been drawn up by the influential Middle Class Handbook website to help members keep book group discussions on track and prevent the collapse of their club. Top of the list of tips,  is to avoid Middlemarch at all costs.

This jumped out at me because not only is Middlemarch one of my all time great reads, it is also the book I swear I will take to a desert island with me should I ever be lucky enough to have that opportunity. My own reading group read it  back in 2007 and lived on successfully. 

I'm sure I'm not alone amongst serious readers and book group advocates, in pouring scorn on this advice. Surely one of the main purposes of a book group is to be challenged to read something you might not have the motivation to tackle otherwise. Surely books that tackle serious issues, moral dilemmas and  questions about how people treat each other, for good or ill,  make for better book club discussions than simply whether or not its enjoyable?

It would be interesting to know from colleagues if there have been books that "finished off" a reading group of theirs. Certainly there have been many books over the years that I have failed to finish personally, and many meetings which some people have chosen not to attend, often because they really disliked a particular book. But it strikes me that a group that is defeated to a person by any specific book is probably one that is on its last legs anyway. Poor George Eliot for being so maligned!

Friday, 27 April 2012

NW Fiction

I've just been reading a post made on the Guardian's Book Blog  this week about an apparent dearth of fiction set in the north. The author's possibly disengenuous lack of awareness of so many writers has provoked lots of comment, including one from me, directing him to our very own website.

Sometimes I wonder why I'm so enthusiastic about encouraging our libraries to be aware of and champion writerswho write about our region, but then an article like this one reminds why.  So many books are published that its really difficult for individual titles and writers to stand out from the crowd. Books that are brilliantly written, enjoyable and deserving of a huge reading public can remain under-celebrated, under-reviewed and under-read.  The problem the author of the Guardian article could have acknowledged is not that the books aren't written, its that they don't get enough marketing, publicity and on-going attention. Perhaps it would be a good idea for publishers to co-operate in marketing their writers via  websites according to locality,  as well as genre or theme.

Now I'm really glad that for National Libraries Day this year I funded and co-ordinated 33 library events for NW writers and bought sets of their work for reading groups,  hopefully bringing their books to the attention of readers who will contuinue to talk about them and look out for future titles. In the autumn I'll be running a promotion of some NW poets, a sector that finds it even harder to generate sales and audience.

The author of the Guardian piece was looking for writers who write about their region, not just live in it. Just in case you want a quick reminder of the fiction writers we supported on National Libraries Day, they were Jenn Ashworth, Carol Birch. Gladys Mary Coles, David Gaffney, Robert Graham, MJ Hyland, Zoe Lambert, Qaisra Sharaz, Jane Rogers, Caroline Smailes, Cath Staincliffe, Michael Stewart, Emma Jane Unsworth, Helen Walsh, Paul Wilson. Virtually all of these, though not exclusively, have taken their inspiration for at least some of their work, from the places they have come from or live in now.  The NW region is so diverse in its communities, landscape and environments that it provides ample inspiration for a wide range of high-quality fiction.

Friday, 20 April 2012

World Book NIght

Monday 23rd April 2012 is this year's World Book Night, timed to coincide with Shakespeare's birthday and has long been a date on which literature has been celebrated worldwide. In 2012 World Book Night will be celebrated in the UK, Ireland, Germany and USA on the same day.

When WBN was dreamt up in 2011 some library people known to me were a bit sceptical. "What's in it for libraries?" they said. My view is always that anything promoting books and reading has to be a good thing and opportunities for the whole book industry- writers, publishers, booksellers, libraries, readers - to pull together are very rare. I was prepared to give it a go.

I understand that some writers and booksellers remain dubious about it: it does seem somewhat perverse to give their bread and butter away. However my personal experience as a giver in 2011 was so positive. Many people were delighted to be given a book that they would never, ever have walked into a shop and bought. It provided opportunities for rare and non-intrusive conversations with complete strangers and the added possibility of reminding them to use their library. It gave library staff opportunities to bring people together to talk about a great set of books and to put their creative hats on about how to get them into the hands of the maximum number of people.

This year staff are pleased to see a library message inside the free titles, which we hope will remind some people about using their local service for more free reading. It feels good to be part of something that is getting 1,ooo,ooo books into circulation. Some of them will have direct and personal impact on their readers.

So I am full of enthusiasm for Monday. I am rapidly re-reading the title I asked to give away The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell and loving it again. I plan to walk up to random members of the public in Manchester City Centre and try to give them the chance to love it too.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Has spring sprung?

Well aware its almost a month since I last posted anything here and I haven't been reading much either. I'm half-way through The Old Curiosity Shop and seem to have hit a bit of a wall. It was all progressing very well- I was caught up in the story of Little Nell and her Grandfather versus the odious Mr Quilp. But after her grandfather gambled their money away again, it seemed to go a bit astray with lots of new characters coming in for no obvious reasons. Has anyone else had this problem? Can I skip on a bit?

My blockage with this has coincided with some wonderful spring weather, now sadly over. I spent many hours last week out in the fresh air walking and gardening. Am now impatient to plant some of my seedling veg. out but am very glad I've waited. Maybe next week?

Plans are advanced now for World Book Night on April 23rd. Givers should be told very soon that their books are available for collection. Many libraries are organising activities on the day (& night) so keep an eye out for book-giving events happening where you are.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Dickens reading group

Manchester reads David Copperfield

The first meeting of the specially formed Manchester Dickens group met to discuss Dickens’ most autobiographical work. It’s a big book, the conversation ranged freely and could have gone on much longer than it did.

We needed to get to know each other a little and find out what each of us was hoping to gain from coming to this group. The reasons varied, but strong among them was a wish to enjoy discussing our reading with each other.

Here are just a few of the talking points.

It’s full of memorable characters; people many of us feel we know already, such as Mr Micawber and Uriah Heep. Some of our knowledge comes from films, so several of us felt we really valued the opportunity to read them for ourselves.

David’s own growth from childhood to maturity was the starting point. Harriet used a memorable phrase Happiness is wanting what you get, not getting what you want. Is this David’s lesson in life?

Who is the “best” character? Brian felt Uriah Heep is vividly drawn and wields the real power of the book. Amjad read the characters as either good or bad.

Someone else said he doesn’t do women very well. Did David just marry his mother? Both rather weak and arguably silly women who needed to be killed off so as to move the story along. But there is Betsy Trotwood who is eccentric but strong, sympathetic and reliable

Is Mr Micawber a hero or a villain? There were quite differing opinions about him; the words irritating and annoying were used, though we recognised he does prove crucial to saving the day near the end.

And what about Little Emily? Anja had strong opinions about her. Dickens tries to make us feel sorry for her as a victim of Steerforth’s evil intent. But all the time she knows she has inheritance from Barkis so is never really going to fall into prostitution. This brought us all up sharply - a new way of thinking about this rather shadowy character.

Finally we touched on the odd and “grotesque” characters Dickens has peppered this novel with. Geoffrey finds it a bit unbelievable that he could encounter so many. Mr Dick and Miss Mowcher are the most memorable. But is this one of Dickens’ wider purposes in writing? He makes us think about how people who are “abnormal” are treated. “ Trust me no more, but trust me no less, than you would trust a full-sized woman” says Miss Mowcher.

We touched on the structure of the novel, its coincidences and cliff-hangers, its moments when the author has clearly forgotten to tell us something or possibly even where he was up to. One of us finds him too long-winded, but others love the multi-layered descriptions, so much more vivid than when we are presented with a character on a film.

There was not enough time to discuss all the things we could have learnt from this novel, about child exploitation, debtor’s prisons, poor education standards, but I’m sure over the course of the year these topics will re-appear. One shocking fact that Donna shared with us was that the age of consent was only 12 years at this time.

Funny that we didn’t talk about Agnes at all !

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Caution-contains spoilers!

aagh- too much to do & say, too little time, what with work and life and Facebook and reading David Copperfield! Every spare moment over the last month has been absorbed by reading aforementioned DC. But I'm so glad I did, as I've never read it before. As I read, flashes came into my memory of a b&w film version I must have seen a very very long time ago- young DC up on a horse & cart next to "is willin'" Barkis. I also seem to remember crying over a BBC version as Dora died with her Doady by her bedside. But memory is fickle. I would have sworn Dora died early on in the story leaving David free to discover who he really ought to be married to for much of the novel. But its not like that at all. Dora dies towards the end and his second marriage seems short-changed, even though we've seen it coming for a very long time.

I'm glad I read this early in Dickens' bi-centenary year as it was so jolly and fast-moving and entertaining, despite the serious themes and extreme length. It has made me keen to read more. Just as well, as I have undertaken to assemble a reading group of Dickens' champions which will read 5 novels this year. We will meet to talk about them and share our thoughts on a website . So its The Old Curiosity Shop next which I don't think I know anything about, except isn't it the one in which Little Nell.....shhhhh.

Can't finish without mentioning Robert Burns' birthday yesterday. I was so pleased to read a Guardian column by Paul Kingsnorth [Gaurdian 25.1.12] comparing Robert Burns with Dorset poet William Barnes. This also took me back, to my own Dorset days and to digging out my "Selected Poems of WB, edited by Geoffrey Grigson". Tucked inside was a newspaper column dated 28.1.84- a comment piece by Roy Hattersley talking about Philip Larkin, and William Barnes ( & briefly Thos. Hardy and E.M. Forster). This column flagged up Barnes' extraordinary facility with language- knowing some of at least 60 and conversing regularly in Persian & Hindusthani with a local neighbour. Seems extraordinary in the Dorset I remember.

For those of you who don't know him, here's a link to enable you to download one of his collections for free.

So there we have it: I have read and remembered 3 extraordinarily energetic & influential writers this week- Robert Burns, William Barnes and Charles Dickens. I wonder who fits their mould today?