On Reading: The Shelf

Every day and throughout the year, I spend a substantial amount of my time reading about reading. From scholarly articles to academic books to chronicles of reading and reading memoirs. I am going to post a series of short observations on the books (and the occasional articles) that I have been reading particularly reflecting on the presence (or lack thereof) of romance fiction, and on how I feel my perceptions of reading aline with the authors.

The Shelf: From LEQ to LES

The Shelf: From LEQ to LES

The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading

by Phyllis Rose

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

In my final post in this On Reading reflections, I explore The Shelf  in which Phyllis Rose decides upon reading every book on a specific fiction shelf (LEQ-LES) in the New York Society Library (NYSL) allowing the library’s arbitrary alphabetised ordering principle (such as I discussed in my last post) to dictate her choices.  I really like the sub sub heading of Adventures in Extreme Reading. Extreme reading, I assumed for the risks the reader takes in serendipitous choice of a shelf that could introduce all manner of wild ideas to the reader. For if this is extreme reading then librarianship by default becomes an extreme profession, one which allows us to venture into readerships unphased and fearless. I also think that this concept of extreme reading is one that we in the library profession take for granted as we have our regulars who often tackle shelves without documenting their progress. Continue reading

On Reading: The Pleasures of Reading

Every day and throughout the year, I spend a substantial amount of my time reading about reading. From scholarly articles to academic books to chronicles of reading and reading memoirs. I am going to post a series of short observations on the books (and the occasional articles) that I have been reading particularly reflecting on the presence (or lack thereof) of romance fiction, and on how I feel my perceptions of reading aline with the authors.

The Pleasures of Reading

The Pleasures of Reading

The Pleasures of Reading: A Booklover’s Alphabet by Catherine Sheldrick Ross

published by Libraries Unlimited, 2014

So far the books I have discussed I found by browsing the library shelves at my university, whereas Catherine Sheldrick Ross’s The Pleasures of Reading led me to them.


Catherine Sheldrick Ross is one of “my tribe”. She is a librarian scholar and researcher of readerly people at Western University, Ontario, Canada (well actually, she is a professor emeritus of library and information  science). I first came across Ross upon reading her paper “Reader on Top: Public Libraries, Pleasure Reading and Models of Reading”. Ross, in her paper discusses the child series reader, the romance reader, pleasure reading, reading as a ladder and what I found particularly striking, is the anxiety that librarians feel in promoting reading that is not considered by literary standards to be “the best”. Continue reading

On Reading: Reading the 21st Century

Every day and throughout the year, I spend a substantial amount of my time reading about reading. From scholarly articles to academic books to chronicles of reading and reading memoirs. I am going to post a series of short observations on the books (and the occasional articles) that I have been reading particularly reflecting on the presence (or lack thereof) of romance fiction, and on how I feel my perceptions of reading aline with the authors.

Reading the 21st Century

Reading the 21st Century

Reading the 21st Century: Books of the decade, 2000-2009 
by Stan Persky
published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011.

I should have posted this blog last night. Instead, my son and I had an all out battle on SingStar. We belted out power ballads and I wiped the floor with him thanks to Bonnie Tyler and Queen. In some cases we sang songs familiar to both of us and in other instances we sang songs new to us. What blew me away though was my son singing Naughty by Nature’s O.P.P. The rapping is phenomenally fast in that song. My son has only heard it a couple of times yet he was able to keep up with the text flying across the screen – I could not. Earlier in the day he spent a few hours reading his fifth novel for the summer holidays – Suzanne Collins’s Catching Fire (“it isn’t as good as the first one, mum”). I also know that amongst his feeds and apps he subscribes to daily Sports news (as a teenaged sports nut is wont to do) and SBS News (“you have to have a balanced world view, mum”). He had also watched five episodes of Community with the captions turned on. I consider my son to be an average reader. Continue reading

On Reading: Why I read

Every day and throughout the year, I spend a substantial amount of my time reading about reading. From scholarly articles to academic books to chronicles of reading and reading memoirs. I am going to post a series of short observations on the books (and the occasional articles) that I have been reading particularly reflecting on the presence (or lack thereof) of romance fiction, and on how I feel my perceptions of reading aline with the authors.

Why I read by Wendy Lesser

Why I read by Wendy Lesser

Why I read: the serious pleasure of books by Wendy Lesser

published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2014


In her book “Why I read” Wendy Lesser writes that she has tried to have a broad definition of literature, including plays, poems, essays and novels, “from traditional literary forms to mysteries and science fiction, memoirs and journalism” (p 5). In describing such broadness I was hopeful. A female author, the wave of attention that romance has received over the last five years and a claim to wide reading. However, I was disappointed that, with the exception of a brief mention of fairy tales and the marriage plot (Lesser p37) Lesser does not include any romance fiction in her book. However, she does lauds Henry James’s female characters and says that they “do not come ready-packaged with a character that accompanies them through life, like a kit-bag of charms carried by the generic hero of a fairy tale”. Continue reading

On Reading: What we see when we read

Every day and throughout the year, I spend a substantial amount of my time reading about reading. From scholarly articles to academic books to chronicles of reading and reading memoirs. I am going to post a series of short observations on the books (and the occasional articles) that I have been reading particularly reflecting on the presence (or lack thereof) of romance fiction, and on how I feel my perceptions of reading aline with the authors. 

What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

What we see when we read: A phenomenology with illustrations

by Peter Mendelsund

published by Vintage Books; 2014

I have mixed feelings about the way I read this book. I read it during grabbed moments, between meals (including one I burnt – a good indicator of the level of my engagement with this book yet not so good for the nourishment of my family), on transport, in that half hour in the morning before anyone else rises, rather than immersing myself into it and reading it in a sitting. This has affected the way I have related to the book because it is not a book to be read so haphazardly. It is a book that needs quiet and concentration. Peter Mendelsund is a lauded book cover designer and an associate art director. The New York Times ran an interesting article on him (and this book). I liked Mendelsund’s visual and textual ruminations on reading. His conscious exploration of what it means to be reading, how we view the texts, the images in our mind, the whitespace and ideas that occur on the page as well as the visualisations that the written words create in our own minds. He writes:

All good books are, at heart, mysteries. (Authors withhold information. This information may be revealed over time. This is one reason we bother to turn a book’s pages.) (Mendelsund, 2014, p 122)

Continue reading

On Reading: The Last Book

Every day and throughout the year, I spend a substantial amount of my time reading about reading. From scholarly articles to academic books to chronicles of reading and reading memoirs. I am going to post a series of short observations on the books (and the occasional articles) that I have been reading particularly reflecting on the presence (or lack thereof) of romance fiction, and on how I feel my perceptions of reading aline with the authors. 

Reinier Gerritsen's The Last Book

Reinier Gerritsen’s The Last Book

The Last Book by Reinier Gerritsen (photographer); introductory essay by Boris Kachka. Published in 2014.

Boris Kachka, in the introduction of The Last Book  discusses futurist Negroponte’s prediction that the printed book will disappear by 2015. Though this prediction has not been realised, ebooks have indeed impacted the way we read. On transport, we get fewer glimpses at a stranger’s individual taste. Where print books were a window to a person’s self, tablets and ereaders, Kachka says, now act as a mirror. Phototgrapher Reinier Gerritsen observed that the incidence of people reading on trains was diminishing so he wanted to document the reading that was still being undertaken on transport.

Gerritsen’s photographs of commuters with their print reading choices depict commuters whose reading choices are broad. There are classics, bestsellers, eclectic and translated titles, children’s books, fiction and nonfiction. There are more male than female authors and more male than female commuters represented in this book. Continue reading

On peddling reading

My Bike and I

My Bike and I

In March I bought a bike. I had never owned my own bike. I shared one with my sisters but we were only allowed to ride in our (large) backyard as we lived on a busy street. As I got older I would occasionally rent a bike when I was on holidays and the last time I rode a bike had been on the island of Poros in Greece in 1996. So finally buying a bike at the age of 43 was a huge step for me.

I am a novice. I wobble along, I have only just mastered going downhill without hopping off the bike and walking it along, I use my bell and I cannot bring myself to ride on the roads yet. I am the person who gingerly rides past people, ringing my bell and calling out “I’m still on my L-plates”. I am loving riding along Botany Bay from Kyeemah to Taren’s Point. One day, my husband and I decided to buy some cakes and we detoured and visited my cousin Peter and his wife Lysette for a lovely afternoon in Carss Park. My favourite route to ride has also given me my most upsetting ride as I had an asthma attack while riding along the Bay Run at Iron Cove Bay. I adore Iron Cove Bay. I also enjoy riding along Cooks River. Growing up in Marrickville, Cooks River was always this dirty, polluted horrible waterway. Despite my home being well beyond the 100 year flood mark, we could, on a breezy day, smell the stench wafting up from the river. In 1985, I met an elderly gentleman who told me about courting his young girlfriend on a rowboat on the river and how it broke his heart to drive past this murky mess. So when I ride past the now cleaner river, after many years of councils investing time and money to clean it up, and I see kids playing, families picnicking, kayakers on the river, I think of that gentleman and imagine him rowing his sweetheart in a rowboat and how much happier he would be if he could see the river now.

Before I had my bike, I walked all these routes, I certainly did not walk as far as I am currently riding so I am seeing much more of Sydney now. When I was younger, I took part in competitive sports, from volleyball and squash teams and cross-country running. I had coaches encourage me, suggest new techniques to me and even if I didn’t make a team I was given training in refereeing and encouraged to continue participating by the people with positions of authority. But I am no longer interested in competition or speed or anything tiring and not fun. Having a bicycle with daisies and a pink seat certainly lets others know that competitive riding is not my aim.

To date, no-one has laughed at me for this. To date, no-one has called me a reluctant rider and to date, no-one in Lycra riding past me at a top speed has told me that my riding is lesser to theirs and that I should be aiming to be a competitor. I take huge pleasure from my riding and I think it is a pleasure on par, though completely different and perhaps immeasurable, to a prize winning cyclist. To date, I have not had a single cycle shop owner scoff at me for my choice of bike or for that matter have these shop owners not stocked a range of bikes because they felt that only competition cyclists should enter their premises. If anything, my bike is mass produced. It was not bespoke. A friend of mine works for a hard core specialist cycling shop pointed me in the direction of the better pleasure riding companies – no disdain, no eye rolling – just keeping me informed. To date, I have not read of any sports journalist dismissing the pleasure rider. To date, councils have put a lot of money into developing bike tracks that are exactly that – for pleasure, for the cruisie-let-the-wind-flow-past-you-smell-the-flowers-and-the-sea-and-have-fun-doing-it rider along with the commuter rider and the child rider and the lycra Speedy Gonzalez rider.

And the same goes for just about any other sport or activity people play. Whether you are playing in the lowest division of football for your local club – no one laughs at you, points at you, tells you that you are doing it wrong and that you should be playing at a state or national level (as an aside – I realise there are still some vestiges of the nutcase over zealous abusive parent/coach etc but note they are now the outlier).  If you are booking the tennis courts at your local tennis courts – no-one treats you with derision for not hitting the ball with the skill of Leighton Hewitt.  If you take part in the City to Surf you get a medal regardless of the place you take. Whether you ran in the elite under 60 minute athletes or whether you strolled along with friends or whether you were in the middle pack and your only aim was to not be beaten by the guy in the gorilla suit. In the past week my family alone has taken part in karate classes, dancing, running, fussball, football and cycling. None of us are gold medal material. All of us had fun. And none of us were the recipients of derision from elite sports people, their coaches, sports commentators, PE teachers etc and none of them have been quoted in the newspapers as considering suburban sports players to be mediocre, useless, poorly led, indiscriminate, wastrels on the field and track. No one has tapped me on the should to say “How dare you not have progressed beyond Beginner’s Zumba after 3 years” or “How have you been going to Yoga for 5 years and still be in the intermediate class” and no one has stopped me on my cycle and inferred that I need to don lycra and up my speed. Because that would just make me quit. I would find no enjoyment in it at all. If anything, coaches, commentators, top rated players, every sports person I have known have always voiced how great it is when they see people playing grass roots sports and most importantly, that they love seeing people enjoying the game and how sad it is that some elite sportspeople can  lose the pleasure of playing in the sport they use to love.

Νοῦς ὑγιὴς ἐν σώματι ὑγιεῖ

Now I want to move on to reading for what are we all but “Νοῦς ὑγιὴς ἐν σώματι ὑγιεῖ” or “sound of mind and sound of body”. If  can exercise my body for half and hour then I can exercise my mind in a similar way.

When I was a teen, my favourite after school pass time was spending hours listening to my favourite bands and reading the lyrics sheets to their albums. Beatles, Springsteen, my Footloose soundtrack, John Cougar Mellencamp, Big Audio Dynamite and the list can go on. I also spent hours and hours reading TigerBeat because I needed to read any celebrity gossip about the Brat Pack and The Outsiders cast and Days of Our Lives. I lived for my magazines. But oh the judgement on the faces of the serious readers I would encounter. They would pucker up their mouths and politely suggest I read something “better”. By better I assumed they meant a book. People seem to think that twenty, thirty years later life has changed and these attitudes have ceased to exist. But that is untrue. I’ve seen many people criticise young girls who love to read One Direction lyrics and fanfiction. Yet when Niall and Louis from 1D decided to act out some of the tamer fanfiction they sent more teens scrambling to read than the Newberry, Carnegie and CBC medal winners has managed to do collectively in the last year.

It is these teens and many other fandom readers who tend to say to me “Oh, I’m not a reader”. This astounds me. They ARE readers.

This is a deep seated problem in our community that I hear regularly. When university graduates don’t perceive themselves as readers, when karaoke singers don’t perceive themselves as readers. I’ve met teens who have attained over 90 in their TER (the Year 12 high school leaving exam for non-Australian readers) who don’t perceive themselves as readers. I have met history and economics and science and religious book, news and blog readers who all say “No, no. I am not a reader” because they have do not identify their reading as relevant or important. Or professionals who only read for their work to say they are not readers is incorrect. They are readers. They are the structured, Lycra readers who read to achieve a professional goal (ot all reading needs to be fun). It is a particularly terrifying world when drivers of automobiles don’t perceive themselves as readers. And if you have a populace who does not identify themselves as readers despite it being their day to day activity, then you struggle to maintain relevancy as a reading industry –  and as an industry we have failed our reading passion.  If we were truly passionate about the written word then we would be embracing it in all its manifestations.

Sadly, many within the reading community, particularly those who are in positions of authority such as literary critics, teachers, librarians, authors, publishers and books shop owners do not function the same way as their sports counterparts. Rather than seeing reading as an “anything goes” pleasurable activity they couch their terms dripping with sarcasm, disdain and judgement at worst, or with patronising terms such as “reluctant” reader or “trashy fun”. Take for example Kristin Meekhof last month in her critique of Woman on Top by Deborah Schwartz saying “Readers may snicker about the title assuming this is a poorly written shallow romance novel”. Unlike Meekhof, I didn’t think trashy romance when I read this title but I thought of Nancy Friday’s Women on Top and women being empowered through sharing their sexual fantasies and the parallels between the two texts would have been a much more interesting article to read. Instead Meekhof elevates herself and Schwartz by taking a dig at the reading choices of many of Huffpo’s readers.

Then there is Ross and Kathy Petras and their book Wretched Writing. Now, I have no issue with people highlighting poorly written prose, tongue in cheek as it might be. Fine. Go for it. We all have our likes and dislikes and I have laughed at incomprehensible sentences too. But those sentences appear in all writing styles and genres. Each genre and style has representations of beautiful writing through to crappy writing. So it is of no surprise that I do take issue with the statement “We started off with romance novels. Then there’s science fiction and fantasy, where you get to be excessively creative because you’re writing about something that isn’t real,”. For we all know how real literary fiction is, right?  Implicit in the statement “But we both love words. You can’t do something like this if you don’t love good writing, too” is that the genres they investigated certainly can’t contain ‘good writing’. And if you enjoy the books and genres that the Petras’s have highlighted as the starting point in seeking out “wretched writing” then you do not know what “good writing” is.

Meekhof and Petras are just two examples of what, at times, can seem a constant stream of newspaper articles disdainful of the reading interests of invested readers.

Burton Rascoe in his book The Joys of Reading: Life’s Greatest Pleasure says that “The phrases “in good taste” and “in bad taste” are used so frequently as undefined and indefinite qualifiers by people who, ignorant of general and specific ideas, use empty catch phrases as bludgeons, that it is probably a safe rule to set down any person who uses the two phrases without any tase whatever, good or bad – an intellectual neuter, an emotional moron, a characterless individual of the pusher type who seeks to identify himself with the people he conceives to be his betters by using catch phrases which he thinks will give him the color and character of a superior being or, at the very least, put stupid people in awe of him.”

This idea that reading can only be aspirational, one in which romance, and science fiction, children’s series and fanfiction are on the bottom rung progressing slowly to the top rung where we read the award winners, the literary awards with a big gold sticker, the books some people think will make them look and sound smart when they mention them in learned company and upon finishing these gold stickered books they can then proceed to look down on readers who have not read them. This is the system by which some of those who work in the reading industry have done a disservice to the broader readers. I have seen this elevation of self committed by librarians, some blatantly and others purely by omission of materials from collections and promotional materials. I’ve seen it done by book shop owners who laugh at the suggestion of romance fiction in their shops and saying that their customers don’t read “those” books. It is much more likely that their customers don’t tell them that they are reading “those” books. By reading professionals speaking down to people, patronising them, elevating themselves as better than the everyday person, many in our community don’t want to identify themselves as readers. As long as people in authority speak with either disdain or in a patronising way then advancing literacy programs and reading initiatives will struggle to take hold because who wants to take part in an activity associated with a bunch of judgmental twats.

Not everyone who exercises wants to win an Olympic medal. I am on my bicycle and my ultimate aim is pleasure. Not to eventually progress to some speedy cycle. Not to lose weight. Not to enter some extreme BMX stunt competition to show off my Funky Chicken. I’m cycling because it is fun and so are a whole lot of other people out exercising for fun. And reading needs to take on this paradigm. Not everyone who reads aspires to reading literary prize winners. There are many of us readers who balk at the thought of reading a prize winner. Not because it is too hard (though Virginia Woolf is probably the literary world’s Tuck No Hander) but because it holds no appeal. As readers we are a broad lot. We vary in our interests as much as people who take part in sports and exercise. For some readers, literary fiction is their deep love, and this is wonderful. But it does not make them better, or worse, than the 1D fangirl reader, Whovian reader, romance reader, car manual reader or blog reader.

 Instead, let us look towards the leaders in sports – the coaches, the athletes, the management and teachers who without disdain or condescension encourage participation and as professionals in the reading industry we should try to emulate their much more egalitarian acceptance of people’s different preferences. Let the Lycra readers go their way and get your daisy and pink seat reading groove on and enjoy the ride.

The Physicality of reading in Greek

I recently finished reading Άλφα by Βασίλης Παπαθεοδόρου (Alpha by Vasilis Papatheodorou). It is the first novel written in the Greek language that I have completed since 1985 when I read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

I regularly read Greek. I have a Greek twitter feed which keeps me updated with publishing and library news. I read Greek library blogs, I occasionally read the local history essays from my dad’s region of Greece, Agrafa (mum’s area doesn’t have a local history section). I’ve read my bilingual publications of poetry, church guides and ancient plays with the English translations helping fill any gaps in my vocabulary. To add to all these, I read picture books, magazines and newspapers. However, these are all short forms of reading.

Greek Alphabet by Peter Bowers Elliott

Greek Alphabet by Peter Bowers Elliott

I have struggled with choosing long form reading in Greek. Even though my local library at one stage had the largest Greek collection in the Southern Hemisphere the Greek librarians were a tad intimidating. 2 were literary in their selections and the 3rd had been my Greek school teacher when I was 13 and is only one of two teachers who gave me the cane (another story altogether). With this in mind, I was self led in my selections. Initially I chose romances that were translated from English, reasoning with myself that at least I would understand the context of what I had chosen as well as enjoying romance. Instead, I found stilted, clumsy translations that made me cringe (is this how non-romance readers feel when they attempt to read a romance?). This led me to consider that perhaps it was the nature of translated works that did not appeal so I tried books by Greek authors such as Γιώργος Χειμωνάς and Μάρο Δούκα but they didn’t stick either. I mostly gave up though occasionally I would try a book out.

Last week, I finally completed one of those occasional tries. It was a YA book that was suggested to me by my twitter contact/colleague/friend @ArgyrisK Argyris Kastaniotis. Άλφα is about a group of troubled youths taking part in the 1973 Athens Polytechnic protests. The main character was a young man called Alexis with a difficult home life that often found him sleeping on park benches or at friend’s homes. While he is part of the polytechnic occupation and takes part in it’s destruction, burning and trashing the buildings, for respite he takes shelter and rests in one of the art studios. One of the sculptures comes to life and takes him soaring over Athens to show him her beauty. This happens several times in the book and consequently changes his outlook from a pessimistic nihilist to an optimistic teen. Had I read this book in English I think I would have been annoyed at the trite insights to the protagonist’s self. It was quite easy to see the story’s moral (δίδαγμα) message but I think it aided my understanding of the whole book.

This is not a book that I would have chosen for myself and perhaps that is why I was able to read it through. It is unlike most of my reading but I felt the weight of the story. A big impact this book has given me is the way it informed me of how I physically read.

In English, I am a fast reader. I am one who needs to race to a book’s end and only if I enjoyed it will I then reread it, savouring every word. In Greek, I found that by sheer inexperience I have to be a slower, more deliberate reader. Where in English I skim ahead as I read my text, in Greek this was impossible. Through force of habit my eyes kept trying to glance down the page as I read but this made me lose focus on the paragraph I was on. In actual fact, I found it very difficult to connect one paragraph to another as I was focusing on understanding each on its own. At no stage did I feel my reading become subconscious and fluid. As I was reading in this fashion I questioned whether the the book would make sense as a whole when I have to think so hard to understand a full paragraph? I kept questioning my comprehension skills when I shouldn’t have doubted my Greek language skills.

I found myself delighted recalling that Greek punctuation is quite different to English. Quotation marks are only used in speech in the middle of a paragraph and not with “αβγ” but <<αβγ>>. I love the ανοτελεία (anoteleia) – the top dot in a colon which signifies a pause that is between a comma and a full stop in length. Questions are signified not with a ? but with a ; (semi-colon). This makes so much sense. What is a question but part of a sentence that can be read on its own.

I became aware of the physicality of my reading – the bend of my head, my eyes shifting across the page, my mouth needing to move as I read some of the more difficult passages yet stilling when I would hit a flow. This mouthing of words reminding me of both the modern connotations of moving one’s lips as they read being that of someone with low literacy, someone who needs the auditory experience to understand the written word. And that of reading during ancient times where the norm was to read aloud. My thoughts went to St Augustine who was perplexed by St Ambrose who would read to himself, lips moving but no sound escaping his mouth. Augustine reasoned that Ambrose could only be doing this in order to preserve his voice. So as I found difficult passages my mouth was moving and I found that my chin was pulling into my chest. I flipped my tablet to read in landscape as this gave me shorter lines and shorter pages thus turning pages more often so mentally I felt that I was reading quicker than I actually was doing – something that I rarely do when I read in English. I had control over the format. I was able to control the font (I chose to not change it from the default) and the font size (I chose the second largest size mostly due to starting to read while on a train when all it was dark), I knew how many pages I had to the end of the chapter, I could change the direction of my reading.

Before I chose to read Άλφα I went through the many books I had uploaded on my tablet. I tried several of them (all in English) but none appealed so I would not attribute the format to having completed the book. The format certainly helped however I think I finally conquered my first Greek novel in 28 years because of the clarity of Papatheodorou’s writing and that Alpha is a gripping good read.

Alpha is a free download from Ekdoseis Kastaniotis http://www.kastaniotis.com/book/978-960-03-5558-1

Look Ma! I’m on a podcast! or This is what you get when you don’t vet your children’s reading

On Valentine’s Day, Kat Mayo and I spent a good part of our day travelling to 2SER studios for an interview on Love and Passion. Anyone that knows both Kat and me would know that we can talk about romance fiction for hours. Put us in front of a microphone and we will amp it up just that tad bit more. I recommend you get yourself a cup of tea, coffee, icecream, cakey and sit back and enjoy.

Love and Passion Show 116 on 2SER

Love and Passion Show 116 on 2SER

The show was aired on a Saturday and unbeknownst to me, one of my sisters went to my mum’s place and translated the interview to mum as it was being aired. During the break in the interview, I received a phone call from my mum.

Mum: When did you start reading romances?

Me: 32 years ago.

Mum: Really? So you just went on the radio to tell everyone?

Me: Yes mum.

Mum: Thank you for letting them know that I don’t read them. But you didn’t tell them I read religious books and biographies of saints.

Me: Sorry mum. I did consider it.

Mum: So what do you know about romance?

Me: Ummm…you know how I went back to uni last year?

Mum: Yes.

Me: That is what I am studying. I told you about it. And you know I read romances. You would always ask me to help you cook and clean and to put down “those romances”.

Mum: I didn’t think you were actually reading romances. I was being ironic.

There you have it. My mum, the original hipster.

Unlike a lot of romance readers I have met, I did not discover romances by finding my mum or grandmum’s stash. If anything, reading is not a shared activity for my mum and I as our interests are quite different. Not now and not when I was a younger either.

For many people, the thought of a parent not knowing what their children are reading seems to be anathema. It is equated as “not caring” or “how can you trust what they have chosen”.

I can tell you that both my parents cared that I was reading. Their main aim was to provide my sisters and I with ample opportunities to read and do homework. That is, ensuring that we didn’t have too many distractions – 1 doll, no video player, 1 TV, regular visits to the library and food at the ready. Both my parents were Greek migrants so Greek was the main conversational language in our home. My mum’s English reading skills were minimal (she worked a day job in a factory, a night shift as a cleaner, a weekend job as a cleaner, ran a boarding house AND raised 4 daughters) and though she was literate in Greek, due to her mindblowing superwoman working life, her rare chance to relax involved her knitting, tatting, gardening and reading the newspaper and the Bible. For mum, food and care was her bonding experience – as well as teaching me how to embroider which I still do on occasion. The only reading I remember sharing with my mum was when I would translate Paris Match from French to Greek for her when they had spreads on the Greek ex-royal family or an article on Cristina and/or Athena Onassis.

As my dad was highly literate in English, mum was quite happy to let him take charge of the homework and reading tasks. Though she did not know the content of the books I was reading, my dad did. Luckily, he was of the mindset that censorship of reading was wrong and never objected to the books I was reading that other friends’ parents were voicing concerns over. Thankfully, he trusted my choices.

My reading path was mine to choose. Influenced by my sisters, my teachers, friends, the books available at the library and my local newsagency, there was a joy in discovering my interests unfettered by close examination of the content of my books by my parents. This is something I try hard to emulate with my sons though it is difficult when you are a librarian to not be involved in their reading lives. Making opportunities for them to read is a much harder task. Gaming and computing distractions abound in our home and are much more addictive than the written word. To be fair, they have both hooked me onto Football Manager and I am crap at it. Its complex rules and processes make me weep for the simplicity of a linear narrative text. I no longer choose books for them. I stopped doing so when they were 8. Unless they ask I won’t read their choices. It is their private party, their little secret. Funnily, both of them at 11 years old have sneakily challenged me with “Mum, there’s lots of snogging and drug taking in the book I’m reading”. My reply has been “That’s good. Would you like something to eat?”.

I never thought of my romance reading as ever being secret. I never felt that they were my private party. I honestly thought I read romances openly for most of my life. That is until last week when I realised that it only took 32 years for my mum to come to the realisation that when she was shouting at me to put away those romances, her daughter was really, truly reading romances.

On reading, intelligence and heroes

My grandmother

One of the most broadminded, intelligent people I have known was my illiterate maternal grandmother. My grandmother, orphaned by 17, had been widowed twice by the time she was 43, she outlived eight of her twelve children and was blind for her last five years of life before dying aged 86 after a number of strokes after severe radiation sickness caused during the Chernobyl disaster. She lived the majority of her life in the northern Pindus mountains of Greece; her only time away was the three years she lived in Australia with my family in the 1970s. My grandmother was kindly towards everyone. Even those that said hurtful things to her. She would encourage her kids to play with the gypsy tsingani kids when the Greek kids picked on them because their dad had died. She taught her children escape routes to bomb shelters and how to shelter in the snow. She opened her doors to people regardless of their ethnic or religious backgrounds – Turks, Germans, Italians and British even though a few of her children had died in battle due to their countrymen. She stood up to the husbands in her village that abused their wives. One occasion had her defending a beaten woman with “You have a blond baby because your wife is blond and your mother is blond not because she slept with a blond man. Look at your kin!”. She was a keen economist, measuring food stores for her large family, managing her family’s agricultural land and the care of their sheep and goats, calculating their winter needs, never running out of food yet having enough to help out families that never planned ahead. When villagers sneered and spat at her grandchildren’s partners for being unmarried and non-Greeks she would stand up and say “If they are in my home that means I accept them. And if I accept them you have no right to come near my home and behave in such a way”.

My mother, observing the village priest walking around with a rifle slung over his shoulder during the Greek Civil War, asked her mother “Why does the priest carry a gun?”. My grandmother answered “You never do as the priest does, you only do as he says”.

My grandmother, who could not read or write, knew that it was the words that mattered and not the format in which the words were delivered. My grandmother is a model of Popperian cosmology. My grandmother knew how to listen and understood that the words did not belong to those who said them. “You only do as he says”. She knew that this man standing at the pulpit was reading from The Bible and these were not his words. She understood that the products of thought were not associated with the person orating the thoughts. She considered the words she heard, she played with them in her mind and in her strong intelligent manner decided on how she would allow those words to affect her.

I have been reading a lot of books and reports this past year on reading and to a lesser degree, literacy. I have found there is a lot of rhetoric around about the power of the written word, how reading gives you access to new worlds, more empathy and a deeper understanding of humanity. Sometimes, when I am reading about the importance of literacy, I get this sense that illiteracy and low-literacy is equated with being narrow-minded, simple, weak willed and being a victim. As though, illiterate people lack intelligence, lack the ability to listen to stories with focus and to employ an analytical mind that engages and observes the actions and feelings associated with the story or the information that they are hearing. There isn’t any example I can pinpoint. This sense I get is implicit. I am mindful that having low literacy does not mean you are not engaged in culture and politics or that you are unable to feel empathy for others. I have met many literate people in my life who are bigots. These are people who read broadly, yet they make racist and elitist comments, belittling others because they feel superior in their intelligence. Do I think I am smarter than others because I can read and write? Not at all. Do I feel that I possess more empathy for others purely because I read a lot and that the reader of one book a year has less empathy? Once again, no. For we are made up of the whole of our experiences and not only those associated with the words we read. I do think that my reading provides me more sources to draw from and I feel fortunate because I can enjoy storytelling in both oral and written forms but this does not make me a more empathetic person. But we are in a world that values the written word over the spoken word. Even now, in the 21st century, the majority of examinations in schooling are still written. There is no oral examination for native students of English in Australia (at least that I am aware of). You could be a lively, expressive student with deep cultural knowledge and an enquiring nature yet if your handwriting is slow or clumsy you are most likely going to be awarded a basic mark and will be described as having limited knowledge. This injustice angers me, astounds me, upsets me. Low literacy is not a mark of low intelligence.

Nobel Prize winner George Seferis considered General Yiannis Makriyannis to be one of Greece’s masters of Modern Greek Prose. General Makriyannis is one of the heroes of the Greek War of Independence and only taught himself to read and write, at age 35, after becoming the General Leader of the Executive Authority of the Peloponnese after the war. He taught himself to read and write because he was frustrated at the misreporting of the War of Independence and he wanted to leave his memoirs, his account. I first heard about Makriyannis from my incredibly well-read father. When I look upon my father’s bookshelves I find Aristotle, St Paul, Shakespeare, Boccaccio, Dante, Georgette Heyer, Dale Carnegie, Cicero, Grace Metalious, Patrick Dennis and tomes of encyclopeadias that he would read cover to cover. My dad never received any formal schooling. He grew up high in Central Greece’s mountains in a shangri-la. He taught himself to read when his village priest allowed him to access the church bible and the psalter and he received an occasional lesson from a passing teacher. His first formal education came with being drafted to the army where he was given charge of Sunday ecclesiastical lessons and the army sponsored his entry to study theology at the University of Athens. He completed 2 years of his studies before migrating to Australia. My dad, having taught himself to read and write in Greek, proceeded to teach himself to read and write in English and prided himself for being a white collar worker. I remember visiting him in his office in East Sydney where he sat at his desk puffing away at his cigarettes, ashtray piled high and his secretary at the desk next to him. My favourite story about my dad’s obsessive reading is from my uncle Arthur. It was the late 1950’s and my dad’s sister had been worried for she hadn’t heard from him for over a month so she sent her husband in search of my dad. My uncle Arthur asked around and discovered that dad was renting a bedsit in Kings Cross. He knocked at the door, when it opened from a thick plume of smoke emerged my father. My uncle asked him “Where did you disappear to?” to which my dad exclaimed “Into my books!”. Now, I realise there was a certain insensitivity in that my dad forgot to contact his sister to even say hello but imagine the glory of uninterrupted reading, drowning in the sea of storytelling. And as funny as this story is, the fact remains that his reading did not make him empathetic as to the needs of his worried sister.

There is not doubt that being literate, being well-read, opens many doors and gives people opportunities that would have been impossible without the skills to read and write. I am always grateful that I was born at a time, in a place and to parents, where learning to read and write was a core necessity as it is a skill that has given me many opportunities. Literacy programs are a necessity as they empower people in our print-based culture. But I am always conscious that being literate does not make me kinder, smarter or more motivated than someone who isn’t highly literate. When there is a call to promote a love of reading as a literacy tool, librarians, booksellers, publishers, authors, educators, all of us bookish souls must take care to not diminish the visual, aural, oral and personal experiences, as well as the intellectual capacities of people with low literacy for not only are they our equals but in many instances far surpass us as they have navigated a contrary life.