Tag Archives: Profile Books

On Being a Good Reader

I was approaching 50 when I decided to return to university full-time to study for an MA. It was one of the best decisions of my life. I loved it! I loved the time I had to read and the freedom to choose what to read. I loved the library. I loved reading books and articles, following trails of references, browsing among the journals, discussing what I had read with my fellow students. I was impressed by the librarian and she has since become a very good friend. I learned the pleasures of reading, following an idea, chasing up more ideas, being a serious reader.

One of the things I love about blogging is the research that it necessitates: for images, biographical details, finding obscure facts and quirky opinions. I recaptured some of the earlier pleasure of studying when I came upon the idea of the good reader and decided to follow it up. It necessitated reserving a library book!

Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill

I had enjoyed Howards End is on the Landing, so was pleased when my sister gave me a copy of Jacob’s Room. She said it was ‘a bit like a blog only all at once’, which is good description. I found myself taking notes of things to follow up, especially related to Muriel Spark, who’s centenary is this year, and I have already joined in a readalong with a review of Memento Mori.

She also reflected on Vladimir Nabokov’s literary criticism, and his description of a good reader. Here are her thoughts:

A good reader pays attention to everything. The surface of the prose. The structure of the book. The tense. The point of view. Perhaps to those even before the characters. Then comes the setting. The story can often come last. (145)

For many, many readers the statement that ‘the story can often come last’ would be incomprehensible. It will not surprise you that for Susan Hill a good reader often rereads.

Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov’s comments had influenced Susan Hill, so I decided to look them up. This required a library reservation, which always makes me feel like a serious reader! It’s a big heavy book, fetched from Exeter Library Stack (whatever that means). Big heavy books also make me feel like a serious reader. I can be so facile.

Susan Hill’s reference was to Nabokov’s introductory lecture: Good Readers and Good Writers. What does Nabokov say makes a good reader? Well, he identifies first those who approach reading to support their emotions, to recall their own past, to identify with the characters. This, he says, is reading of a ‘comparatively lowly kind’ (4). His good reader, on the other hand, approaches the book with the willingness and the imagination to enter the world created by the writer.

We ought to remain a little aloof and take pleasure in this aloofness while at the same time we keenly enjoy – passionately enjoy, enjoy with tears and shivers – the inner weave of a given masterpiece. … The best temperament for a reader to have, or to develop, is a combination of the artistic and the scientific one. (4-5)

And he remarks on the necessity of rereading to be a good reader, to appreciate the three facets of a good writer: magic, story and lesson. In the lectures he goes on to show how this is done by Charles Dickens in Bleak House and Jane Austen in Mansfield Park among others.

A good reader?

It seems that the good reader is one who pays attention to more than the story in a book, who pays attention to how the story is told. For many people this is more than they want from their reading, and that does not make them bad readers of course.

I think in the terms of the two writers referred to here, who are also prolific readers, I do not count as a very good reader. But I am working on it. And I intend to go on by studying the world-building of writers (and paying attention to it in my own writing) and I plan to do more rereading.

New Book by Harold Harvey 1920

And I think I will still leave space to read for the story, for comfort and also to read with that lowly kind of imagination that means I am an emotional reader in Nabokov’s terms.

I will also practice being aloof. Writers need loofs. (Old joke).


Jacob’s Room is Full of Books: a year of reading by Susan Hill (2017) Profile Books. A gift from a sister.

Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov edited by Fredson Bowers (1980) Weidenfeld and Nicolson. The library book.


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Filed under Books, Learning, Libraries

Mass Observation and the writer

Mass Observation sounds like something George Orwell invented for 1984, but actually it is an invitation to pro-social writing. In the last 80 years people have been providing their observations of everyday life, what they hear, see and experience in their own worlds and writing it down it for the Mass Observation Archives. You write and give it away, yes, for free. It’s like a combination of blood donation and planting saplings. You don’t benefit, and indeed the outcomes of your donation might not be seen for years.

A Brief History

Mass Observation was set up in 1937 by Tom Harrisson (anthropologist), Charles Madge (poet and journalist) and Humphrey Jennings (film maker) to support ‘anthropology of ourselves’. They set out to collect material about the everyday life of British Islanders. The Worktown Project, for example, collected material in Bolton.

We are studying the beliefs and behaviour of the British Islanders … the function of Mass-Observation is to get written down the unwritten laws and to make the invisible forces visible … [From First Year’s Work by Mass Observation 1938]

In the Second World War civilian life was studied using surveys and observations. But after the war the organisation moved more into consumer research.

The Archives were transferred to the University of Sussex in the 1970s and Mass Observation was re-launched in 1981, continuing to add to the archives of everyday experiences and making them available for research.

A panel of volunteers have been answering specific questions every year since 1981. These have ranged from questions about Being Overweight, Using the Telephone, Body Piercing and Tattooing, responses to General Elections, and most recently to the EU Referendum one year on. Applications to become volunteers are only accepted in particular categories.

Since 2000 Mass Observation has made 12th May its special day by inviting anyone to send an account of their day.

Books and Mass Observation

Not surprisingly many academic publications are produced from this rich resource. While writing The New Age of Ageing, the authors attended research conferences, including one where a researcher drew on the archives to explore how attitudes to the old had and had not changed.

And there are also publications for a more general market. Here are two.

Nella Last’s War: the Second World War Diaries of ‘Housewife, 49’ (1981) Edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming. Published by Profile Books. Living in Barrow-in-Furness in Lancashire, Nella Last documented her war-time daily life for Mass Observation. It is touching, moving and at times very funny.

Victoria Wood brought Nella Last to a wider audience in 2006 with her adaptation for tv: Housewife 49.

The second book is A Notable Woman: the romantic diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt edited by Simon Garfield and published by Canongate in 2015. I posted my review on this blog here.

There is nothing especially remarkable about Jean Pratt, except her diaries which she began when she was 15. She was born in 1910, died in 1986 (aged 76). The diaries lack hindsight. We know what happened, but those living through those times did not know how their world would change. It’s a long book, but full of wit, humour and humanity. Lovely. Just what the historian ordered.

For more on this splendid resource, making the invisible visible, writing down the unwritten laws visit their website at www.massobs.org.uk

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Filed under Books, Writing