Try this for a tongue twister: readers like reading about other readers reading. Not tricky enough? What about: reading about reading is as important as reading itself. Okay, so the second one isn’t as much of an alliterative challenge, but it does paraphrase a key point raised by Evelyn Arizpe at the beginning of the day-long Reading Fictions symposium, held in Glasgow in October. Quoting from Maria Nikolajeva’s contribution to the project, Evelyn asked us to consider how readers, the act of reading and books themselves are represented in children’s literature in English. What messages about reading do books bring to the reading process? And, to get all tongue-twisty again, can reading about reading – or even readers reading – have an impact on the way we feel about reading, as readers ourselves?
According to Vivienne Smith, many ‘real’ readers find it flattering to read about the pleasure fictional readers get from books, not simply because it affirms the values that may already be attached to literacy practices, but also because such ‘bookish’ characters are often linked to goodness and virtue. Are we, as real readers, drawn moth-like to representations of fellow book lovers (even if other characters seem to think they are a bit boring) because we subconsciously connect with their love of books? As Vivienne suggested, are we more likely to empathise with a character-reader when their right to read is removed – as it is for Demetria in Jan Mark’s Riding Tycho (2005), or Felix in Morris Gleitzman’s Once (2005) – even if it is only one right among many? Does being a reader intensify the sympathy we would ordinarily feel for their plight? [You’ll have noticed our use of ‘we’ and the automatic assumptions we have made about the readers of this blog.] Similarly, authors such as Cornelia Funke, who represents books symbolically as keys and weapons, tap into long-held (and highly prized) assumptions about books as repositories of knowledge, as places of intellectual fortitude and endurance. As Maureen Farrell explained during her paper on the representation of reading in young adult fantasy, such texts positively revel in their intertextuality and often draw heavily upon a reader’s metafictive awareness.
But what about those readers who are not already so strongly “book-identified”, to borrow a term from Maureen’s paper: will such self-reflexive texts seem a bit daunting? Or could they possibly inspire wider reading? During her discussion of Leon Garfield’s The Book Lovers (1976), Kimberley Reynolds showed how Garfield’s creation of a character who creates a canon of books about love, all for the purposes of wooing, could at once encourage some readers to broaden their literary horizons, while alienating others.
Linked to this sense of broadening was Julia Eccleshare’s discussion of Jacqueline Wilson, which explored how Wilson’s relationship with her readers is reflected in her books. Several of her texts feature Wilson-like writer-characters, who spend a great deal of time encouraging young people from all kinds of backgrounds to engage with literacy as a meaningful hobby or career choice. As Julia explained, the parallels between Wilson’s real life activities (her commitment to engaging with as many readers as possible) and the values expressed by her writer-characters will not be lost on her fans, who, it would be hoped, might go onto espouse Wilson’s generous and inclusive views on literacy.
Moving further afield, Evelyn’s paper explored a set of books that depict illiterates (both human and animal) as vermin who can only exist on the margins of society. Developing the ability to read within such oppressive conditions can be transformative: the characters are described as filthy until they learn to read, when they become symbolically cleansed. Here, the reader can still be flattered by the presentation of reading as akin to cleanliness, but this time, we must empathise with characters who cannot (yet) read; who are not (yet) members of our reading club. As Evelyn explained, such texts may encourage readers to reflect on a life without access to reading, as well as literacy’s life-enhancing potential.
Similar representations emerged during Jean Webb’s paper on Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief (2008), where books and reading are linked to freedom, persecution and death. Liesel, who cannot read, goes to sleep with a treasured copy of The Grave Digger’s Handbook under her pillow, a book that she learns to read as the story develops and new relationships form. Her newly-discovered passion for reading comes at a time when books are being burnt in their thousands. Here, books, readers and the act of reading are linked to life-affirming notions of comfort, love and safety within challenging, changing times.
Of course, changing times can mean changing text types, as Sylvia Warnecke explored during her paper on digital fictions. Teaching digital texts like Inanimate Alice, could provide teachers with exciting opportunities to discuss what counts as reading: after all, the texts that Alice seems to derive most comfort from are the ‘texts’ sent to her by a friend via his mobile device. The discussions linked to this paper raised interesting questions about how different types of reading are perceived, and how they may be embraced in a modern classroom.
So, it would seem that we all agreed that, as readers, reading about reading is important because of the powerful messages it can convey. And indeed, what better place to start reading about reading than in the early years, with contemporary picturebooks. As Morag Styles and Mary Ann Wolpert demonstrated during their whistle-stop tour of the genre, metafictive texts such as Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s The Stinky Cheeseman and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (1992) riotously exploit (and explode) assumptions about how, where and why we read. Not only that, but they are hilarious too.
Papers from the Symposium are to be published in an edited volume, more details on this when available.