In BBC The Reading Group, we bring together listeners, students of English, literature teachers and other contributors from the world of books to share their enthusiasm for reading.
We discover the history behind one of the most famous places for reading in the world – the Reading Room of The British Museum in London. Author Jenny Hartley talks about reading groups around the world.
Listen to the BBC The Reading Group Part 6 programme:
ANNOUNCER: You’re listening to The Reading Group from the BBC World Service. In this series we bring together listeners, students of English, literature teachers and other contributors from the world of books to share their enthusiasm for reading. We hope that following this series will encourage your own interest in reading books in English as a foreign language.
Gary: Hello. In The Reading Group today, we visit one of the most famous places for reading in the world – the Reading Room of The British Museum in London. Who used to study there? And what kind of library is it today? We send a Reading Group reporter from Argentina to find out.
Well, later in the programme, in the last of our talks about the reader as a detective, author Gillian Lazar offers help on understanding the themes of a novel.
But first: an update on reading groups. You might be wondering why to join one – reading is after all very much a private pleasure. Well, our studio guest today has done a survey of 350 reading groups in the UK and she can tell us what makes them tick. Jenny Hartley is the author of The Reading Groups Book, published by Oxford University Press. Jenny, welcome.
Jenny: Hello. I’m from Roehampton University in Surrey where I’ve been teaching English literature and women’s writing in particular for many years.
Gary: Jenny, how do you explain the growing number of reading groups?
Jenny: Well, it does seem to me that people have always read in groups, more so before the days of cheap printing and the spread of literacy. And for many of us, reading does start as a group experience, if you think back to your past and you think of sharing books with your parents and perhaps with your brother and sister, and usually that’s a very good memory.
Gary: It’s true that books are often read to us when we are young and it’s a group activity, but reading is also thought of as a solitary activity, one person described it as the lone voyage.
Jenny: Yes, and some people hate the idea of sharing books with each other and they do see it as something you do on your own in private. But I think there’s also a growing recognition that people have always shared books as well, and that reading can be a collective experience.
Gary: So, in some senses the reading group phenomenon is not a new one.
Jenny: Oh, definitely not. It goes right back. There is a wonderful carving on a cathedral in Spain of the apostles sharing their bibles with each other, so a sense there of arguing with each other and talking and discussing what they are reading.
Gary: You did a survey of about 350 reading groups. What did you ask them? What were you trying to find out?
Jenny: Who’s in the groups, what kind of people join reading groups, and we wanted to find out about the books. What are they reading, what is it that makes a good or bad book for a reading group?
Gary: Where do these reading groups happen?
Jenny: Anywhere you can think of. Mostly they happen in people’s houses. Bookshops as well are quite a good place, but of course it’s got to be quite a big bookshop.
Some groups prefer to meet in a wine bar or a cafe. I’ve come across groups all over the place. There’s one in a dentist’s waiting room, after hours, and I think that’s a great use of the space. There’s a group that meet in the zoo because they are reading stories about animals.
Gary: So, people are reading everywhere. What exactly are they reading?
Jenny: The top books that people read mainly are literary fiction or modern fiction, books that are being produced now. Though reading groups often would like to vary what they read so perhaps they’ll decide to read a non-fiction book every now and again, and history is quite popular.
Gary: In your research, did you come across any groups where there’s a mix of native speakers of English and non-native speakers of English.
Jenny: Yes, some of the keenest groups we heard from are ones where they’re made up of a mix of English-speaking incomers who want to get to know the country they’re living in and perhaps they don’t many people there because they’ve just arrived, and non-English speakers who want to improve their English. So it’s ideal for both sets of people, it’s a kind of win-win situation. And we heard of quite a few groups like this in countries all over the world, such as in Spain, India and Greece. The Greek group choose their books very imaginatively.
Partly they are constrained by what they can get hold of, but they also have an idea of what will work well for them. They did very well with Ted Hughes’s translations from Ovid. The Greek speakers could bring different things to the group to everyone else, so that’s what makes for a good session.
Gary: When you were looking at the data you collected, did you find anything that makes a group more likely to succeed than fail?
Jenny: What really makes for a good session with a group, is a book that causes controversy, that has a lot of different opinions coming in. The thing about that is, you really can’t predict what it’s going to be. If you all love a book, sometimes it can fall a bit flat, because after you’ve all said “we all loved it” where do you go from there? If a book has something you can argue about, precisely what did happen, that’s what makes for a really good session. Most groups like a certain degree of argument. You’ll get to know each other and how you like to read, and I’m sure you’re going to enjoy it.
Gary: Jenny Hartley, thank you very much.
Now just a short walk from our BBC World Service base here at Bush House is The British Museum. And this houses a very special and historic library – The British Museum Reading Room. We sent Reading Group reporter Adrian Sack to discover more about the place where Karl Marx, author of The Communist Manifesto, used to study almost every day for thirty years.
Insert 1 – British Museum Reading Room package
Adrian (Reporter): Adrian: The British Museum Reading Room opened in May 1857. It cost one hundred and fifty thousand pounds to build, and is one of the largest domed buildings in the world. Originally, it was home of the British Library, and only to be used by very few readers, who needed a special library card. Now, the British Library has moved to another building in London and the Reading Room is open to the general public. I had an appointment with the librarian, to find out some of the library’s history, and to discover who uses it today. It was a wonderful moment when I stepped into the vast circular room.
Adrian: …This room looks like a great tram. I can see thousands of interesting books, of every colour and size. I’ve come to meet Pam Smith, the librarian. Pam, what was the reading room like when it opened in 1857?
Pam Smith (librarian): When it first opened the Reading Room looked very much like it does now, because it’s been refurbished to look just like it was when it first opened. This is a wonderful circular room and the desks are arranged like a spider’s web, coming out from the centre of the room. There is room for 300 places here and at times it must have been very crowded. In the middle of the room we have a raised desk where the superintendent of the room would sit so that he or she could observe what was going on throughout the room.
Adrian: What was the Reading Room for?
Pam: Originally it was the British Library Reading Room and it was a library for those people doing particular research. It was a library of last resort. If they couldn’t find a book anywhere else this was the library to come to. An application had to be made to use the room, so it was a very special place.
Adrian: What is the Reading Room used for now?
Pam: Now, it is the British Museum’s information centre. So if you want to find out more about a particular object in the British Museum, if you want to research the cultures that are represented here, this is the place to come.
Adrian: What else do the people look for here?
Pam: They may just come as a place to study, because it is a rather nice environment to sit and just do personal study.
Adrian: You are showing me two very old books. What do they contain?
Pam: These are the British Museum’s Signature of Readers. They are books that anyone using the Reading Room had to sign to say that they would a bide by the library regulations. Here we have number 9404, which is Karl Marx.
He was a regular reader here. He came for about 30 years, he was using this room as a place of study. We think he probably sat in the range of seats between K and P because that’s where the politics books would have been, in the reference section around the room. So it may be one of these seats that Karl Marx sat in. In fact it was a very popular room with revolutionaries. We think Lenin worked here as well, and there are stories that the Tsarist police were trying to track them down in London, so some people applied for a reader’s ticket under false names, so they could be less easily traced.
Gary: Our Reading Group reporter was talking to librarian Pam Smith.
Now Gillian Lazar joins us again, this time, with a guide to help you understand the themes of a novel.
Insert 2 – Gillian Lazar
Gillian: Like a detective, a reader gathers clues – the words in a book. Like a detective, a reader tries to reconstruct what happened and why. Like a detective, a reader knows that the story of what happened is shaped by its teller, and needs to be evaluated accordingly. But detectives, unlike readers, are interested in unambiguous facts – the date, the time, the place of the crime. For a reader, there is interpretation rather than facts. So what helps us, as readers, to make an interpretation of the themes of a novel?
When we read a novel, we begin, like detectives, with the facts. Imagine for example, that we read a novel about a hoard of Roman coins that a farmer discovers buried on his land. The questions asked by a detective may include – when were they discovered and by whom? But as the reader of a novel we might use these facts to raise wider questions about the meanings of the discovery, such as: How has the farmer’s life changed since he found the coins, or even, what do the Roman coins represent or symbolise? In other words, when we read a novel we ask philosophical questions about its deeper meanings. And asking these kinds of questions helps us to interpret the themes of the novel.
Something else which can help us to interpret the themes are any groups of words which recur throughout a novel, and which may begin to take on a symbolic value as we read. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, for example, a number of words reappear repeatedly. These are ‘dust’, ‘ashes’ and ‘smoke’, and they are in marked contrast to the many other words describing radiance, brightness and glamour in the book. These two opposing lexical groups provide us with clues to some of the themes of the novel – the moral corruption that lies at the heart of the glamorous world that Gatsby, the main character, so desperately wants to enter, for example. So, be aware of any groups of words which recur throughout the chapters of a novel, and which seem to have more than just a descriptive or factual significance. Ask yourself these questions: Do these words contrast with any other clusters of words in the text? Do these words have any symbolic or metaphorical significance which can help us to understand the novel’s themes?
The job of a detective is to solve a case – to have a neat and tidy answer to a mystery. But this is where we, as readers, part company with our detective. For we will never have neat and tidy answers; only the many questions that the themes of a novel raise for us, and the many interpretations we make of them.
Gary: Thanks to Gillian Lazar. Next time we begin a new series of talks, starting with an introduction to simplified readers. And we interview a best selling author of these fantastically helpful books.
ANNOUNCER: And that brings us to the end of today’s programme. If you’d like to share your reading experiences, you can join our BBC Learning English group on Facebook. We’ll have topics on the Discussion board linked to the subjects covered in The Reading Group programmes. So, until next time, happy reading!
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