Reader Development in Practice: Bringing Literature to Readers. Edited by Susan Hornby and Bob Glass, Facet Publishing, 2008, ISBN 978-1856046244, 240 pages.
This book spans a wide-ranging approach to reader development, including contributions from an author, a poet, a bookseller, academics, librarians, literature development workers and a not-otherwise-affiliated reading group member.
It certainly provides a decent overview of the very different ways individuals engage with literature, some very relevant to public library practice (my field), others of more abstract interest, and some perhaps less relevant.
The book is formed in five themed sections and I shall examine each of them in turn.
The introductory chapter takes us direct to the source with an account from published crime author Ann Cleeves of the process of writing, from inspiration to publication. This is a very accessible narration; Ann positions herself clearly as a reader first, author second, and she explains the influences and images that feed into her novels. Ann is a big fan of public libraries and the new readers they can provide for her books. She describes the increasing number of (particularly crime) authors who group together and tour libraries and bookshops promoting their wares and providing an evening's entertainment. From experience Ann enjoys the new readers attracted by events in libraries, promoted by passionate and knowledgeable staff to their individual readers and networks of reading groups keen to try new authors.
The most directly relevant chapter to public librarians, this section details practical examples of reader development work, the importance of social inclusion and changing attitudes of library staff to a pro-active reader-friendly approach.
Jane Mathieson, Regional Co-ordinator of 'Time to Read', details the growth and accomplishments of this pioneering regional reader development network in North-West England. This is an inspiring example of what committed regional co-operation can achieve; a broad range of successful promotions from poetry to local writing, and including the Big Gay Read, titles and materials which were sold nationwide via their supplier partner, Bertrams.
The importance of a socially inclusive approach to reader development is the subject of Linda Corrigan's chapter, in which she considers the spectrum of the traditionally excluded: travellers, BME (Black and Minority Ethnic), LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) and disabled people, and focuses on people with visual impairment. The chapter is an excellent summary of the challenges facing the latter group of readers, the different ways printed text can be accessed, and the changes that can be made in library practice greatly to improve their experience of access, selection and reading.
Anne Sherman's chapter charts her experiences in Cheshire of reader development becoming a central part of their remit rather than an add-on. It is the usual stuff; reading groups, author events, workshops and music. The changing attitude of staff, from that of hostile to the more welcoming which she illustrates, is probably a common experience. Moreover, there is still room for improvement, as the recent Opening the Book publication, The Reader Friendly Library Service suggests , with a similar approach to Sherman (negative quotation from staff rebutted with evidence of success of new approach).
This section concludes with a personal favourite, an account of the 'Get Into Reading' (GIR) Project, initiated in Liverpool by Jane Davis. Much has been written about the fantastic work the GIR reading groups do, breaking the traditionally middle-class reading group mould wide open and enabling people from a wide variety of backgrounds and abilities to engage directly with the words of authors and poets in supportive and inclusive group environments. To hear the genesis of the project, and Davis' own journey, and those of some of the reading group members is both moving and powerful. Davis' interviewees range from a carer, a pair living in a homeless shelter, to several mental health service users - all powerful advocates for the impact that reading together and supportively, has had on their lives. This is an important project, now spreading throughout the country, and one with which local authorities need to be engaging now.
This section explores a wide range of new, and older, ways of engaging with literature. Calum Kerr gives an introduction to the world of hypertexts. He provides a multiplicity of means of navigation through a text using hyperlinks, rather than being confined to a single route imposed by the author from beginning to end. A product of Kerr's recent PhD, the chapter is rather theory-heavy for an otherwise relatively practical book; however it does provide an interesting diversion.
Kay Sampbell discusses the increasing prevalence of novels for teens and young adults exploring dystopian themes. These themes require young readers to face often bleak interpretations of the nature of humanity, sometimes tempered with a traditionally redemptive ending, sometimes not. Kerr claims that recent novels by authors such as Garth Nix and Melvin Burgess mix narrative styles and elements of popular culture in order to create a complex, multi-layered reading experience that appeals particularly to young men, challenging the prevalent narrative of crisis and illiteracy that often surrounds accounts of contemporary youth.
A month in the life of practising poet, librarian and publisher forms the concluding chapter of this section. Mike Garry is based in North-West England and through his poems and others' he works with a variety of groups, particularly young people, to engage them with words and reading. Outputs include his own work, and publishing the creative efforts of those with whom he works; his enthusiasm and dedication are clear in his chosen diary format.
A really mixed barrel in this final group: we are offered one long, and one shorter discussion of e-books as the main future direction for the printed word; a bit of a moan from an academic bookseller; and then an account of professional education in reader development.
Clare Warwick provides a thorough exploration of the history and current status of e-books. Not the paradigm-shifting technology they were initially heralded as, but quite useful in particular fields. Seemingly a result of the technological difficulties of recreating the emotional and physical experience fiction readers in particular have with the physical bound book, e-books and their accompanying hardware are not likely to take over the plastic-jacketed paperback from the library shelves anytime soon. Those retailers, and the occasional library authority which had bravely poked its wallet over the parapet, have receded (Essex being the notable exception ). However, for academic libraries and technical readers where a single chapter is often all that is required, the e-book format has clear advantages for both the reader and the library service over a limited number of paper copies.
The e-book is addressed again in a jointly authored chapter by Bob Glass, Ann Barlow and Andrew Glass questioning whether the era of Caxton is ended. The rise of e-books is discussed more briefly, without the helpful distinctions of Warwick's chapter, and suggesting a greater impact on traditional publishing and bookselling operations. For libraries the increase in electronic access is evidenced, as is the falling footfall, suggesting that access to books as well as information electronically from the public library is the way forward. However this is a partial view and the chapter does not go into sufficient depth to air the many factors at play thoroughly.
Mike Mizrahi provides an account of the survival strategies with which he engages in order to survive as an academic bookseller. They include the cultivation of a reader base, promotional opportunities and a few digs at the academics providing his bread and butter. Considering reader development is predominantly a concern of public librarians, this seemed the most irrelevant chapter of the collection, as an account of the strategies employed by a general bookseller attracting fiction readers would seem to be a more obvious choice.
The final chapter of this section elucidates the reasoning behind the collection: a reader development module run at Manchester Metropolitan University for library and information students. The majority of contributors also appears to have had a slot on the module programme, which provides a whistle-stop tour through key issues in the field, from the development of children's literature to literacy initiatives, storytelling, electronic resources and managing collections. A good advert for the innovative teaching at the university, this module clearly aims to provide a good grounding in the diversity of approaches to engaging reader with book.
The collection closes with a personally revealing chapter of a reader's experiences with several book groups, suggesting that as Ranganathan had 'every book its reader' , then also every reader his or her book group. The author, Francine Sagar, reports attending two groups, one public library-based, one private, before finding one that fitted with her social and intellectual requirements of a reading group.
This is a rather mixed selection of practical examples, arguments and opinions around the topic of reader development. Having been given the full list of topics from the original module, I might have chosen contributors a little differently, and would certainly have liked to see more on reading development for children. As a collection to be dipped into by a variety of practitioners, academics and students, it is a valuable tool however, and a good introduction to a range of issues and projects, as well as a source of inspiration for professional practice.