The PhD Diaries #2: Reading as Breathing - Reflecting on Personal Reading Histories

Or to be a little bit posh, a “literacy autobiography.” In her extensive research piece, Telling Stories in Book Clubs: Women Teachers and Professional Development (2006), Professor Mary Kooy kicks off her two professional development book clubs by asking participants (in this case, secondary school and university English teachers) to reflect at length on their reading history, in particular, the importance of reading throughout different stages of their lives and the impact reading fiction has had/currently has on their personal journeys and careers. I think it’s a brilliant way to start a book club or, as an individual reader, encourage reflective practice. Leading questions include: Why is reading important to you? How would you describe the reading process/experience? What are your favourite works/most beloved novels? Who (family, friends, authors, or even characters) has influenced your reading habits or acted as a role model? What types of books do you choose to read and why? Who are you when you read? Having skimmed about 10 of these mini-autobiographies in Kooy’s book, I’ve gathered that they should be candid, conversational, free-form pieces between 500 – 1000 words in length, chronologically ordered from childhood to one’s present reading interests and their influence on the self. I think this is quite a fun way to stretch those reflective muscles and to coax the ‘reading bug’ out of hiding. While I don’t necessarily need to find my literary ‘spirit animal’ – reading is as necessary to my life as eating and breathing it seems – I wanted to try it out and see if I found any merit in this sort of reflective exercise (keeping in mind that it might be a useful exercise for book club participants in future workshops). So, without further ado, a monologue:

My Mum had a saying when we were growing up that she wanted her five children to develop a “love of learning.” And the natural outworking of this goal was to read to us consistently and encourage us to read voraciously. Throughout our entire childhood both my parents read aloud, Mum during the day and Dad often at night (my parents ended up getting rid of our TV – a choice I was distraught about at 7 years old, but ultimately came to appreciate). Whether it was C. S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles, Famous Five, Bible stories, G A Henty and H. Rider Haggard novels, or Little House on the Prairie, my siblings and I were always the most attentive listeners. However, I didn’t actually start reading on my own (as in entire books) until I was about 7. The memory of when it all ‘clicked’ is still very clear in my mind; a pivotal ‘ah-ha’ moment which engendered my insatiable appetite for fiction. I would read all my books at least twice, although I read Noel Streatfield’s classic Ballet Shoes about five times. I was also ‘in love’ with The Royal Diaries and My Story collections, and essentially anything to do with the Tudors. It wasn’t a matter of quality so much as quantity (I was very proud one holiday when I was about 9 or 10 that I read about 20 ‘chapter books’ over a 2-week period). Growing up we’d go to the library almost every week and haul boxes (literally boxes! 5 kids with a limit of 20 books each = 100 books!) of books home. I didn’t really think this was unusual at the time, but in retrospect as a family we were probably what you would call ‘bookish’ or maybe even slightly obsessed! But how I will always cherish those countless evenings curled up in front of the fire lost in a good book, with my cat, a cup of Ecco and carob buttons as company (#happy&healthy), or sitting listening to a story from a magical world as I drew those worlds and constructed elaborate family trees in coloured pencils, tracing fictional histories all the way back to Charlemagne. At age 13, and still believing in ‘true and pure love,’ I devoured, and perhaps to my detriment, Christian romance fiction, completely exhausting the genre in the space of 2-3 years. My saving grace though was a concurrent infatuation with historical fiction in the form of Jean Plaidy sagas (which, I might add, although ‘out of fashion’ are stunningly detailed and well-researched) and Philippa Gregory novels (who can’t help but love those dastardly Tudors?). And due to this immersion in history I progressed to Shakespeare fanaticism.

In fact, I associate my ‘love of literature’ (not just ‘genre fiction’) with Shakespeare’s Henry V. Being homeschooled, there was a lot of scope to pursue those topics which interested me most, and at about 15 years old I decided that Henry V most definitely interested me – the complexity of the language (I would pore over each line with a dictionary and a printed copy of the text to annotate), the beauty and strength of the prose (“Once more unto the breach, dear friends…”), the drama, the romance, the bawdiness! I think I spent about a term reading, reflecting and writing on this play. What followed, was a foray into the literary ‘classics.’ My favourites from this period included 1984, Lord of the Flies, and The Count of Monte Cristo. Interestingly, and I’ve only noticed this in retrospect, I didn’t read many classics written by women during this phase. I didn’t like reading Jane Austen (the BBC adaptations superseded the novels for me) and I found Jane Eyre frustrating; Virginia Woolf wasn’t even on my radar. I think this may have something to do with the continuing implicit assumption and wider social expectation that most women’s writing doesn’t constitute ‘serious fiction’ (see this article by Nicola Griffith, and this one by Meg Wolitzer). And to be a ‘serious reader’ (which I desperately wanted to be as a nerdy teenager), you read authors like Dickens, and F. Scott Fitzgerald and George Orwell. 

Many of the critical decisions and choices in my life have, in some way, been tied to books, and novels specifically. While I made the ‘sensible’ choice to do a business degree at university, my love of books and reading is so ingrained in my psyche that I couldn’t go to university and not study literature and the arts. And, in fact, doing an English degree in tandem with business studies was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made – so thank you Shakespeare!

What I appreciated most about studying English at university was being exposed to such a wide array of literature which it is unlikely I would have picked up on my own – post-modern fiction, postcolonial literature, feminist texts, medieval stories, Victorian novels, and so on. A healthy dose of Woolf, alongside Sylvia Plath and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, with a foray into Thomas Hardy, Nabokov and J. M. Coetzee. However, there wasn’t always enough time to appreciate a story for what it was, and some of the books I really hated (anything by Kafka, for instance), even though I knew they would ultimately make me a better scholar. Reading in this context often became a perfunctory task rather than an opportunity to become blissfully ‘lost’ in a text. Saying that, a novel which particularly influenced me while I was studying was The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (story summary here). The novel is both devastating and uplifting– it is difficult to describe how exactly it made me feel (sad, happy, disturbed, unsettled, angry, undone, re-formed), but it gave me a sense of epiphany; a feeling of eyes wide open – looking both inward and outward, observing my own fallibility alongside that of the characters, who while so different, share a common humanity that is too often obscured. Furthermore, due to my family history, I feel connected to India in some distant way. In my mind, this ‘relationship’ is complex due to the imperialistic nature of former British influence in India and my ‘whiteness,’ if you will. I have no ‘claim’ to India, but I can’t help feeling an affinity, and this story gave form to Kerala, a place where my grandmother and mother lived during the time in which the book is set.

my name is lucy barton.jpg

Despite reading consistently during undergrad, when I started my Masters my knowledge of women’s literary fiction was still rather scant and limited to course reading lists. While I knew good quality women’s literature was ‘out there,’ I didn’t realize quite how much. It’s been a wonderful, life-changing experience to read so many books by women but I won’t bore you with the details seeing as I’ve written so much about this stage of my reading life already in other blog posts. But I will say, one of my favourite things to do is search for books by scanning reading lists (like the Feminista Top 100), reading book reviews and spending time on Goodreads. I continue to be AMAZED by the richness, depth and breadth of women’s literary fiction.

Currently, my go-to recommendation books are My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout. These two novels are interlinked and almost, but not quite, like a set of short stories rather than conventional narratives. The characters are small town people whose lives are intertwined in surprising ways and who struggle to move beyond their very limiting, and often unhappy lives, constrained as they are by their ‘small town’ mentality. I guess you might call them contemporary ‘slice of life’ novels if you were looking for a genre categorization. I find many reflections of my own life in these stories because homeschool communities (even in Auckland) are small and insular in very similar ways to the small towns and isolated communities portrayed by Strout. And while I have my own life now, I still feel so intimately connected to the past and to that particular community, and it's so very hard to move beyond it sometimes. Strout is also a brilliant yet uncomplicated writer. ‘Truth telling’ seems to be her key focus; as her character Lucy Barton observes: “I have said before: It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down” (p. 95).

Recently, I’ve been learning to actively discuss books with others. Writing about reading books is one thing, but learning to talk about books in a meaningful way and engage in dialogue (rather than monologue) is another experience entirely. I really like what one of Kooy’s (2006) book club participants observes in her literacy autobiography: “I can say that a book is no longer complete if I am left on my own with it — particularly if the book deals with unsettling ideas or ideologies, or a deftness or art of language that flows or moves readers. The idea of a book growing with discussion is vital to me” (p. 58). The process of co-creating meaning and ‘sense-making’ using novels was particularly evident to me when my hubby, Mitchel, read The Gate to Women’s Country earlier in the year. I used this text in my thesis (summary here), and had discussed it with my supervisors in more academic and literary terms, but as part of Mitchel’s reading of it we engaged in purposeful dialogue as he read, debating the differences and similarities between cultural and liberal feminist ideas, as well as interrogating the nature of power itself (Would women really run a nation differently than men? Are gendered behaviours essentialist? Is the author ascribing to a liberal or cultural feminist ideal? Or something else entirely? Is power the real problem? What even is ‘power’? Was that decision made by the women’s council morally justifiable? Was it necessary? Would men have made a different decision? Why or why not?). It was fun, as well as informative. And the novel gave us room to debate without it being personal or exasperating – the story provided material for conversation, as well as creating a neutral space for discussion of complex ideas and concepts.

Finally, who am I when I read? What identities, stances and/or literary perspectives do I consciously/sub-consciously bring to my reading? Am I a realist, a structuralist, post-structuralist, romantic, deconstructionist, etc? How does this influence my reading choices?

A lot of the literature I read is already ‘resistive,’ in that it is consciously feminist and gender is often a central topic for analysis, or if not ‘feminist,’ than concerned with disrupting the normative ‘way of doing things’ or addressing societal challenges – the things frequently left unspoken or taken-for-granted. And often gender is not the only topic of concern, but also culture, race, religion, sexuality, sustainability, class, power, etc...and other social and structural barriers that continue to perpetuate injustice and oppression. I am also concerned with selecting and reading books that are 'literary.' This is a very difficult term to define, especially since reading is a subjective activity and taste is mutable, but I do tend to opt for books and authors who are generally well-reviewed or have won or been nominated for prestigious literary prizes ('cultural authority' you might say). These reading choices stem from my feminist stance and English studies background, and I tend to read consciously as a feminist and through a social constructionist lens. However, I also think book choices influence who I am when I read - through fiction I have grown and been challenged in my views. And all the very distinct stages of my reading life, as outlined in this blog, reflect how my personal identities, concerns and interests have shifted and developed over time.

In terms of other 'ists' and 'isms,' I’m really only a baby post-structuralist and deconstructionist. I think these are useful ‘lenses’ but how much they transfer into my reading and interpretation (as 'sub-concious' influencers), I’m not entirely sure. 

I do appreciate books that embrace post-structuralism or deconstruction as their theoretical underpinnings, or where an author might ‘write from the body’ (as Cixous would say), for example, the very disturbing and unsettling The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch, but sometimes I struggle to enjoy these types of books or fail to be caught up in them and engaged on an emotional level as the abstractness of the writing and structure tend to unhinge the expected plot, character and story development. And so as a reader you are left...grasping.

While I’m attempting to read very widely (translated texts, post-modern, Kafka-esque, some poetry) and more critically, ultimately, I am still very conscious of ‘enjoyment factors’ and the more visceral responses I have to a well-written novel and a good story. As I read, I usually make a mental note about who I think would like this book (or who wouldn’t like it) and why. Do they read for plot, characters, genres, the literary style, or a mix?  What other types of books have they read recently? What ideological or religious schools of thought do they align themselves with? What do they love/hate seeing in a book (since some people are sensitive to violence, sex, swearing, etc)? And then I might return to the book and ask – does this story conform to their beliefs? Or will it challenge them in a useful way? Or will they throw it across the room and never trust my recommendations again? And I believe, and I’m sure others would attest to this, that I’m damn good at recommending books. Hopefully this makes me more responsive to people who read from a much different position than I do (although, please don't ask me to discuss 'chick lit' or other very formulaic genres!! There are limits!).

As a closing thought for this reflective entry, I also like to buy physical copies of books. There is an aesthetic element to reading that I appreciate – the comforting weight of a hardback copy, the interesting detail on a cover, that clean, crisp smell. It’s nice to own books.  

 My favourite bookshelf at home!

My favourite bookshelf at home!

So was this exercise useful? Indeed! I wanted to keep adding more and more in! And as I went I started to realize just how much I've drawn on certain books to spur me towards action, or characters I keep returning to and identifying with, and why I liked or didn't like certain books. My only concern is that as a 'reflective exercise' it did take quite a lot of time, and while it was enjoyable and wanted to make me read more (and more widely), constructing a narrative of this sort might be considered onerous. I'm sure many people would have a wealth of reading experiences to draw on, but organizing those thoughts into a 'reading history' or autobiography is unlikely to be a priority for busy people juggling work, family, social lives (and while I would consider myself 'busy,' I count this as work). Perhaps there is a way of making the prompts simpler or providing easy to fill-in sections? I'm sure I will return to this later and review its usefulness, as well as reflecting further on 'who I am when I read,' but right now, it's time for a coffee!