Monday 17 August 2009

Reading Groups

At the recent conference of the Poetics and Linguistics Association (PALA-2009, click here for website), I heard someone say: "The whole activity of interpretation has moved from departments of literature to reading groups." (I am sorry I don't remember who said it, but if it was you, or if you know who it was, I would be grateful if you would let me know.) In any event I think this is a very interesting idea, and perhaps correct. It would represent, I think, three kinds of movement. One is a democratization of interpretation, that moves its locus from a small number of people, such as certain university teachers of literature who—equipped with the correct interpretations of canonical works—would instruct others on these interpretations (see a previous post on interpretation by clicking here). A second is an implication of the Reader Response movement, in which the variety of responses to works of literature has become no longer problem but a feature. A third is the way in which interpretation is made no longer as a pronouncement but as a contribution to a conversation which is itself part of a relationship.

I have been a founding member of two reading groups, one in Edinburgh that ran for about three years, and one in Toronto that has run for 18 years. In both groups we read only novels—well pretty much only novels, although we've had a few lapses into memoir and biography. Both of these groups were of friends, and we met, and continue to meet, as a reading group about once a month. Our current group has nine members (five women and four men) which for us is about the right size. I think for me there are two distinctively lovely features of these groups. First is the wonderful variety of experience of works of fiction, so that things that I completely did not see in what we have read, or did not realize, or did not understand, were seen, realized, understood and thought about by other people in the group, and so in the group discussion they are added to my own experience of the book. It's quite common in the group for someone to say: "Well, I didn't like the novel all that much, but the discussion was better than the book." The second is that by relating what we read to our personal experience, the relationships among the members of the group, and our understandings of each other, are deepened and extended.

Reading groups have become widespread. Although there are, I believe, a number of books about how to start and how to run a reading group, the best book of information on reading groups that I know is by Jenny Hartley and Sarah Turvey (2001; I see the book was reissued as a 2002-2003 edition with a foreword by Margaret Forster). Hartley and Turvey conducted a survey of reading groups, mostly in UK, but also world-wide. In 2000 they estimated that there might be as many as 50,000 reading groups in Britain and 500,000 in America. In their main survey, of 350 groups in UK, they were able to find both a range of types of group, and to depict what the typical group was like. About two thirds of reading groups were women only, most of the rest were mixed, and just a few were men only. A typical reading group—it turns out—is rather like the one I am in. It tends to meet about once a month, and is more likely to read fiction than non-fiction. Amongst other results of their survey Hartley and Turvey came up with the three favourite reading group books which are as follows (with the number of groups in the 350-group sample that have read each in parentheses): Louis de Bernières Captain Corelli's mandolin (81), Frank McCourt Angela's ashes (71), and Arundhati Roy The god of small things (58). As an indication of how typical is the group I am in, we have read all three of these.

Perhaps most interestingly, Hartley and Turvey give a general sense of great enthusiasm with many people looking forward eagerly to the next meeting of the group. Here are two quotes: "We enjoy feeling totally free to express our own opinions," and "Discussions can be anything from profound to hilarious, but are always lively."

In a more recent study, Zazie Todd (2008) has sought to characterize the kind of discussions that take place in reading groups. In her abstract she says:
Analysis of the transcripts from 21 discussions of contemporary novels showed that participants used the plot as a way of anchoring their discussions. Participants often expressed sympathy and empathy for the characters, and described it as a problem when this did not occur. The group discussions also seem to show some evidence of what Miall and Kuiken (2002) call self-modifying feeling. They also revealed a search for a meaning within the book, and participants sometimes found quite different meanings, linking the text to their own emotional and autobiographical responses.
Jenny Hartley & Sarah Turvey. (2001). Reading groups. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

David Miall & Don Kuiken (2002). A feeling for fiction: Becoming what we behold. Poetics, 30, 221-241.

Zazie Todd (2008) Talking about books: A reading group study. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 2, 256-63.


Paul Lamb said...

I've been a member of various reading groups for 15 years, and I am grateful for the experience. Not only have I enjoyed all of the reader benefits you describe in your post, but I find it has informed my writing as well.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Paul, for this comment. I agree with you: I find that having been in a reading group helps me quite a bit as a writer, though it also sometimes makes me depressed when a writer who I think has done something imaginative or courageous is spoken of scathingly in the group. For instance, I thought that in The cellist of Sarajevo, the author, Steven Galloway, had done something bold and innovative, whereas one of our group members thought the book was "sophomoric," a term of contempt in North America that always makes me wince (a sophomore is a second-year university student in USA). Over-identification with writers, on my part, I suppose.

Barbara said...

But the reassuring thing when you encounter such different responses is the realization that every reader has a different experience; some will love what you write, others won't, but it's not your failure that leads to someone not connecting with your writing. It's a matter of their own personally-developed cannon that has developed independently of your work. Which I think is kind of reassuring.

A few years ago I wrote an article about the experience of an online reading group. I was particularly interested in the ways that books connected with readers on a personal level and how readers saw reading as a social, not a solitary activity.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you so much, Barbara, for this comment and for your lovely article on the 4MA (Four Mystery Addicts) online reading group. I enjoyed and was informed by your article. The 4MA group sounds brilliant. I have just looked it up, and find that it has 1250 members! Although I have published a novel that sometimes gets classed as a mystery, I am not really a mystery addict myself (though my partner is—and I will mention this online group to her, because she is always looking for new mystery writers). This group sounds as if it exemplifies the internet really working at its best, with many of the important features of social meeting and discussion without constrictions of mere geography. And, as you say, it shows how reading—although it is, in a way, solitary—is really social, creating relationships around shared cultural objects (books).

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