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

Supping With the Devil that is Romance Fiction

Last week I was part of a reader’s panel at the ALIA Biennial Discovery Conference. Neither the author or reader’s panels were official conference papers. Due to many requests from conference attendees I am posting my paper here on my blog. Please note that this is a heavily edited version of the original paper I had written in response to the Call for Papers and the topics of “The book that changed your life” and “Connecting with your communities”:

I read romances for the love, the escape, for the catch of breath below my diaphragm at the anticipation of that knowing glance and the sexual tension, I read romances for the beautifully retold love cliché, I read them for they are predominately women writing for women about women. I read romances for the sheer science fiction of improbability that is possible, for its absurdist nature and absolutely for the joyful resolution, the Happily Ever After.

Choosing the romance book that changed my life for this talk today was a difficult task as I have so many that I consider seminal. I chose Sara Craven’s Sup With the Devil.

Sup With the Devil was Craven’s 23rd novel. The protagonist, Courtney, was of a privileged background but had been living on the breadline for the last 3 years due to her family going bankrupt. Courtney is being coerced to marry the nephew of the man who bankrupted her family. She remembers her grandmother’s warning that:

when you sup with the devil you should only do so with a long spoon

The story has slow revelations, hidden passions, many misunderstandings And it has love. Not only a passionate love but also a love of friendship and trust that comes from an emergent courtship.

As a teen, I quickly read out the small romance collection at my local library. When I would ask for more the librarian would kindly guide me to “better” reading choices. This was in the 1980s which were focused on reader development/education rather than the current paradigm of reader advisory which is about matching a reader to a similar experience.  I was given Mary Wesley and Maeve Binchy. Lovely reads but they were nothing like the darkness of Charlotte Lamb, Anne Mather’s torridness and Carole Mortimer’s alphabrutes.

At university, when reading was being discussed, it was literary. I read across all fiction but discussing romances was considered only one step away from being illiterate. Fine if you weren’t smart enough to read anything else. I also started to explore academic papers on the romance reader which I did not agree with. What these papers did was anger me because everyone seemed to think that there must be a psychololgical reason to read romance. Romances meant I was subjugated. Romances meant I expected a male to rescue me. Romances meant that I was not a feminist. You read to learn and develop and the attitude was that you couldn’t possibly do that with romances.

As a reader, I gave up on accessing my books from my library early on. I bought all my romances from newsagencies, supermarkets, second hand bookstores, bookshops, markets, online and swapping books with friends. As a romance reader I am not unique in this behaviour.

There are impediments to borrowing from the library such as the cataloguing of paperbacks. Records are basic. The practice for many public libraries used to be a “Romance Fiction” title with barcodes attached for individual items. Basically, the romance is not searchable. The argument always goes along the lines of “we have budget constraints”, “these books are junk”, “the readers don’t remember them”.

Cataloguing of literary fiction, which sells less than a third of that of romance, is comprehensive yet romance is not catalogued to the same level.

This single catalogue record/many accessioned items impacts the reader experience of the library. The inability to search for items is not a positive library experience. I attended the Australian Romance Readers Convention in 2009. I was discussing public lending rights with an Australian Mills and Boon author. Her comment was “My books don’t get catalogued. As they are rarely searchable I don’t recieve PLN payments”. This writer has 16 books published in Australia and translated in over 10 languages worldwide. This decision to not catalogue does not only impact readers – it impacts authors and their impression of libraries.

Let’s look at the language librarians use:

Here are 2 large print Mills and Boon Christmas trees. Both libraries posted these on their social networks.

The first one is a romantic tree. Straightforward. Objective.

The second tree – “I know you romance readers will disagree with me but have u ever seen a better use for a mills and boon”. This statement that these books purpose as an aesthetic, decorative object is preferable to their content may be tongue in cheek and having a bit of fun but what message does it send to the recipient of that social media?

To the romance reader, it sends the message that their reading choices are inferior. To the non-romance reader it sends the message of librarian (authority figure) is disdainful of romance therefore romance must be inferior if said authority figure says so. As librarians, do not underestimate the authority that you command.

Another example, I was approached by a librarian who wanted romance recommendations for a display he was preparing. I suggested Jennifer Crusie was a good start and his comment was “Oh. But Crusie transcends the romance genre. Her writing is highly commendable”.

To transcend a genre is what happens when a reader discovers that the book they have just read and enjoyed is genre fiction but they don’t want to identify themselves as having read genre.

Romance is not alone in this. Margaret Atwood has transcended fantasy. Peter Temple has transcended crime. I dislike transcends. I prefer to use the phrase “these authors benchmark their genre”. Jennifer Crusie is a benchmark of romance. As librarians the language we use when discussing reading with our patrons and our colleagues needs to be objective. Patronising only results in less patronage.

On Legal Deposit in Australia and NSW:

The National Library of Australia has the most comprehensive romance collection in Australia as they catalogue all the titles they receive through legal deposit. The State Library of NSW fully catalogues all romances written by Australian authors which then become part of the Mitchell Library collection. Other titles by non-Australian authors are not catalogued thoughthey are stored in offsite storage and accessible if you know the publisher, the month and year that they were published. Fisher Library at Sydney University however has retained few of the romances deposited with them. They’ve retained authors such as Stephanie Laurens, Bronwyn Parry, Helene Young and Anna Campbell. However, Anna Jacobs or Anne Gracie, Sarah Mayberry and Kelly Hunter all of whom are celebrated and awarded both nationally and internationally as benchmark authors in the romance genre do not have a single title of theirs held at Fisher Library along with a number of other Australian women authors published in NSW that I could list let alone looking at bodies of work by specific international romance authors that a scholar may be interested in studying. But I was placated by the librarian I spoke to with“we have a great crime collection if you want to study genre”.

How does the romance reader perceive the library?

The Australian Romance Readers Association conducts an annual readers survey.

There are 2 library specific questions in this survey.

“Have you borrowed romance books from your local library this year”. 50% of respondents answered “Never”.

“Are new romance releases usually available from your local library” Only one quarter of the respondents said yes. The other quarter said no, and let’s not forget that half of the respondents never use the library.

I find this data concerning. This is a survey of engaged, committed readers. Readers who are part of a reading association, readers who follow book review sites, author websites, subscribe to newsletters, magazines and blogs so as to decide upon their next read. These are readers that engage with social media. If we are looking at the lower end of the scale these readers read 60 romances a year and this does not include their other reading interests. Yet, they don’t recognise the library playing a large, positive role in their reading experience. Half of them never use the library.

“To Sup with the devil you need a long spoon”

Libraries have treated romance readers as “the devil” for they maintain a distance from them. We see this in librarians trying to improve the readers choice, cataloguers not valuing the books the readers choose. All this is reflected in the romance readers survey responses that the library is not a provider for their reading needs.

It will be interesting to see what trends will emerge with ebook lending.  When I searched the libraries in Sydney that subscribed to Overdrive there were a substantial selection of romance titles available. That spoon is getting shorter. It is not all dire. There are libraries that know the value of the romance reader. They have strong romance collections, romance authors are on their standing author lists, speak at library events and run writing workshops. These libraries know that the big readers impact positively on their KPIs so they court the reader and romance readers love a courtship.

Towards the end of Sup with the Devil, Courtney is torn. She suspects her husband embezzled from her family but she likes him. She makes the decision that she was no longer going to hold him at bay for “to sup with the devil might hold an element of excitement”.

to sup with the devil might hold an element of excitement

This metaphor invites you to be a risk taker. Life is about using the short spoon when you are supping with the devil. And this is what libraries should be doing.

Look for the marginalised reader, look for the marginalised patron and support them and court them.  Discover those ideas that to others are distasteful, that are met with derision and make room for them in your libraries. Find your gamers, hobbyists, hackers and makers. Your homeless, your reenactors, geeks, crafsters and subversives. Look at your emerging communities and do not dismiss your established users. For Raymond Williams tells us that Culture is Ordinary. That “every human society has its own shape and its own purpose, its own meanings. Every human society expresses these, in institutions and in arts and learning”. These institutions are our libraries and libraries are our secular cathedrals and these secular cathedrals should be representing our ordinary culture. As this conference is about Discovery, I ask you to go out, discover the ordinary in our society and use the short spoon to sup with them.

© Vassiliki Veros and Shallowreader, 2012.

Historical Romance for libraries: your top 5 picks

Next week, I am doing a 5 minute lightning talk on selecting Historical Romances for your library at the History in the Dixon readers advisory seminar. I thought, rather than tell librarians the authors that I deemed necessary to be added to a standing order list (because that would be subjective and we can’t have that), I thought I would crowdsource some reader preferences.

So, send me your Top 5 Historical Romance authors for libraries. Either post your preferences in the comments below or send them to shallowreader@gmail.com and I will post them to this blog. I will also collate them for the presentation and create a Top 10 out of everyone’s Top 5.

Thank you.

Alphabet vs Genre

As a child, I remember progressing from the picture books to the chapter books at my local children’s library, The Warren in Marrickville. Upon my progression to the Junior Fiction section, disorganised child that I was, I made the decision to delve into the collection at the beginning. At A. And I would progress until I read every book in this, albeit tiny, branch library. I read Alcott’s Little Women, Brink’s Baby Island, Brown’s Flat Stanley, Cleary’s Henry Huggins and Ramona the Pest and as you could imagine the list goes on and on all the way to Zindel’s The Pigman. (As an aside, I spent about a year at E and F having hit the mother lode with Elizabeth Enright, Eleanor Estes, Edward Eager and Eleanor Farjeon). I went on to use the same method when I matured from the children’s library and I moved up two flights of stairs to the then Adult Library at Marrickville Town Hall under the beautiful stained glass ceiling.

Once again, I started at A and progressed slowly through the collection. Serendipity ruled for me. And browsing shelves alphabetically, whether in a bookshop or a library was great because, unlike Dewey, it was simple and unbiased. I just read whatever caught my fancy. Steven King, Leon Uris, Wilbur Smith, Isabelle Allende, Penny Jordan, Carole Mortimer all interfiled in the one big area. Horror, literature, romance, fantasy all there. Despite this, I still discovered my favourite genre, I still found my favourite romance authors. This was objective shelving, for while the library may not pass judgements on different genres, people sometimes do, and link a writer’s, and even reader’s quality, to their preferred genre.

Over the last 10 years, libraries have seen a shift in the layout of their spaces and the way people access their shelves. There is a lot more display space, bookshop layout is aspired towards, and this is all very positive as it makes libraries much more attractive and appealing places to their members. But I am ambivalent about the reorginisation of books according to the genre that they fall in. Unlike retailers, libraries are not about profit margins but about unbiased access to information and cultural materials. Selection may be unbiased but we are seeing a move towards subjective organisation.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of genre fiction. Over the last 30 years my reading has seen me devour comics, horror, literature, children’s fiction and, of course my mainstay fiction favourite, romance. To add to these, I will occasionally dabble in fantasy, science fiction and my least favourite (and only because I’m squeamish), crime. But I found my favourites by browsing unbiased shelves. And much as I love walking into my favourite bookshops and libraries and heading straight to the romance shelves I often wonder about the people who will miss out on reading a fabulous romance because they don’t want to be seen in the romance section or the science fiction fan who just doesn’t want to read literary work. Somehow, I feel that it is like apartheid for books (harsh words, I know!).

For, heaven forbid Dean R Koontz is shelved near Milan Kundera, or Roald Dahl to be seen alongside Victoria Dahl, or Howard Jacobson grace the same shelf as Eloisa James. And then, what of the books that sit across genres such as Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse and J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood books that sit comfortably in both fantasy or romance genres. Or benchmark setting authors such as Margaret Atwood – does she sit in literature or speculative fiction. Genre-based shelving endorses a classification of fiction that may not be needed.

I know that as a child, I loved discovering books and that none of them had genre labels. As an adult, I am struggling to decide upon whether I like the genrification of libraries or if I would like fiction, to once again, be a roll call of authors on shelves.

* strikethrough added a few years after I first posted this

Nanna Naps and the books that bring them on

The Urban Dictionary defines Nanna Naps as:

I would go further and add the stipulation that a Nanna Nap is never taken on a bed. It is never planned. One has a Nanna Nap by mistake. One has a Nanna Nap while waiting for the washing machine to finish its rinse cycle. One has a Nanna Nap while Ridge and Brooke fight over Brooke kissing another of Ridge’s male relatives or while Bo and Hope try to come to terms with their years spent apart due to being brainwashed into thinking they were royalty. One has a Nanna Nap while one’s boiling hot tea is cooling only to wake up to a cold Lapsang Souchong. Or, quite importantly, Nanna Naps are taken when the book you are reading, rather than amaze you and enthrall you, has sent you into Morpheus’s arms due to its somnabalistic prose. I am a regular partaker of Nanna Naps. Most often on my couch though occassionally in a chair (and dang it my neck is a mess after those). And sometimes I have them while I am in the car. This is fine when I am a passenger but not so good if I am the driver * WARNING: Nanna Naps can kill

Books I have Nanna Napped with:

Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby

I have such love for Nick Hornby. A romance writer under the guise of lad lit and music lit. Every book has an angsty bloke and every bloke gets the girl in the end. And Juliet, Naked is no different. I usually stop reading a book that will send me to sleep but this one had an epistolary element to it and I felt I needed to persevere. I’m glad I did as it guaranteed me a Nanna Nap per sitting and I was much more refreshed when I awakened.

Don’t Look Down by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer

Don’t get me wrong here, for I adore Jennifer Crusie as a writer. She is in my top 2 authors ever. I lubs her muchly. And also in my top 2 books ever is Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer’s book Agnes and the Hitman. Yet, Don’t Look Down took me 3 years and a number of false starts before I managed to push past a Nanna Nap on page 7. Yes, every attempt had me nod, nod, nodding off. In the end, the book was a decent adventure/romance read.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Reading this book became such a sure thing for having a Nanna Nap that it almost defied the rule of a Nanna Nap being unplanned. Tired but can’t get to sleep…perhaps Conrad’s description the ships lying in wait for the Thames wash is the answer, as time and time again this had me breathing little “ks” of sleep. Once again, I persevered and love this densely descriptive book.

Odysseus by Ken Catran (audiobook)

I love Greek Mythology and I particularly love hearing the stories told rather than reading them as they represent thousands of years of oral storytelling traditions. All I remember of this audiobook is driving onto the expressway heading out of Sydney for Nelson Bay and then waking up outside of our hotel 2 hours later with both my sons telling me about the gory killing and maiming they heard in the story. Two things stand out in my mind. The first is that I loved their excitement for the story and the second is how grateful I felt that I was not the driver. Since that day, unless it is a comedian, I never listen to audiobooks when I am the driver.

Vineland by Thomas Pynchon

This was one of the 9 books that I removed from my home in my annual purge of books I will never read. I recall opening the book. I think Chapter 1 starts with a domestic scene and then…..zzz (a Nanna Nap beckons me even as I type about this book).

Reading avenues for the Shell-Shocked, Time-Strapped Reader: From First-time Parents to Corporate Workers

For many people, reading fiction means escaping into another world, losing yourself in the setting, becoming one of the characters in the book and feeling that you are there too. To do this, as a reader, you need uninterrupted time, seamless moments to relish the language, space and activity taking place but, unfortunately, when your workplace commands much of your waking time or a newborn enters your household, uninterrupted time may be only half an hour whether it is your commute or your rest time between chores and baby napping. And half an hour for most readers is not sufficient to immerse and lose yourself in a novel.

For those of you who need to see the written word at least once a day, who need that tactile sense of paper and no electronic devices and for those of you who miss reading but can’t seem to delve into characters lives like you did in those pre-work committment, pre-baby  times, here are a few reading alternatives that I have suggested to library borrowers who come enquiring. You may want to consider:

Short Stories:

Succicint, minimalist with an economy of words, the short story is a great place to start rediscovering reading. Short stories range from 2000 to 20 000 words making it a great entry point for many time strapped readers. Anthologies tend to have a thematic vein with a variety of authors. Some great examples are Girls Night Out, Zombies vs Unicorns, Steampunk. The other short story style is the one author with a variety of their own stories: Margo Lanagan’s Black Juice, Steven King’s Four Past Midnight, Tobsha Learner’s Yearn. Some of these stories stand alone and others are interlinked. Short stories are a great way to explore new genres, new author voices or just delve into a previously loved writing theme.

Literary Magazines:

There are many literary magazines all of which have short fiction, essays, poetry and the like. There is the New Yorker, Granta Magazine (thematic based approaches to compiling reading materials), McSweeney’s amongst others.


Essayists, comedians, people who write about the funny, peculiar occurrences that they observe are often great reads for the busy person. Often a collection of their works can be dipped in and out of over a period of time. Some of my favourite observer/essayists are David Sedaris, Laurie Notaro, Adam Gopnik, Gervase Phinn.


Non-fiction is a fabulous antidote to the reader who misses reading but not necessarily fiction. Dipping in and out of most non-fiction is a simpler task than with novels as they are fact driven. Wit the exception of biographies, most non-fiction doesn’t require the reader to emotionally attach themselves to character lives (though, that said, sometimes it is harder to let go of the real life people you read about in some history books). DK Books have great information design that facilitates dipping in and out of books, some arm chair travelling, dreaming of artists, reading about the military, atlases of history, unattainable homes in architecture books or science trivia books can be very rewarding reads.

Children’s Fiction:

In general, children’s novels are much shorter than adult novels and there is a plethora of enjoyable reading. From Dick King Smith’s The Waterhorse, Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell’s Far Flung Adventure Series to the darker Sisters Grimm series many of these stories often surprise adults with their themes and quality writing.


With the prospect of reading tales from around the world, reading mythology is a rediscovery of tales told either at the dinner table or in the classroom. From Aboriginal dreamtime, Homer’s Odyssey or Arthurian tales mythologies may be shorter reads but they have inspired many generations with their epic adventures.

Poetry and Lyrics:

Poetry and lyrics are the delivery of ideas in rhythm and cadence that stays in your mind long after you have re-shelved the book you read it in.

To add to all these, there are newspapers, comics, graphic novels and many other shorter writing options that can be suggested to readers. Websites, blogposts, zines and a number of online options are also available but for the purposes of this post I wanted to focus purely on the print reading options that are available.

For the busy worker, the lack of reading opportunities can sometimes go un-noted  for many years as it occurred incrementally but for the first-time parent this transition isn’t a slow one but one which seems like a severance of a body part. And though some of the above suggestions may seem overly obvious, when someone is overtired it is easy to overlook simple ideas until someone mentions them to you.

So whether you are a time-strapped executive who is working 12 hour days, a cleaner who physically is exhausted at the end of a long shift or a new-time parent struggling to find any time to themselves, hopefully the above avenues are helpful and bring lots of reading pleasure.

Mea Culpa Mea Culpa Mea Bloody Culpa (but then again maybe the bookstores will have to shoulder this one)

Last week, RedGroup went into administration and along with it a number of Australian and New Zealand book chains – Borders, Angus and Robertson and Whitcoulls. Of course, the media have gone crazy blaming the darn internet again (my god – prior to 1994 you could only blame society). With the gradual decline of the print newspaper (hell, they’re giving them away at 8am these days) the media are bitter, enraged and ready to snarl at any hint of online business having healthier sales than a bricks and mortar company.

Now I am being implored by the media to “put my money where my heart is” and support my bricks and mortar independent bookseller and stop buying from those horrid online bookshops.

Well, let me say this to the book chains and indies.  You lost me, and a large chunk of the book buying market (romance readers), by being disdainful of our reading choices. I have spent decades struggling to source romance titles and finally have found places that will not only stock them but will sell them to me at a lower price than venerated bookstores can supply them. Why should I change my buying habits. As it stands, I would still have to source my titles through the online bookstore to give to my indie who has actively chosen not to supply them.

Yes, I do love my indie. Their loyalty program is splendid, their staff are friendly and knowledgeable (and all greet me by name) and for years they would order in books for me (back when I really didn’t feel comfortable with online purchasing). These books were, inevitably, romances.  But did this impact at all upon their book stocks? Well – they always stock Jennifer Crusie. But that is it. Despite the fact that they had staff that enjoyed the genre and and that they had customers that enjoyed the genre and that they had genre sections throughout the shop (Sci-fi, Fantasy, Graphic Novels, Crime) my “beloved” indie chooses to not sell Romance. Somehow, I suspect that independent bookshops would prefer to declare bankruptcy than to dedicate any space to the romance genre.

When you have a mortgage or family  or other responsibilities to look after, your book buying priorities change. Thankfully, I work in a public library so access to millions of books is at my fingertips. These same millions of books are accessible to any Australians who visit their public library. To find these books Trove is the best source for titles held throughout the country. That said, I love my keepers and I am all for the adage of “Buy the best, borrow the rest”. So when I find that I have borrowed and renewed a book multiple times and I am deeply in love with it I will go out and purchase a copy for my home.

I find that I buy approximately 20 books a year for my whole family and I buy these books from various sources. Now, the difference between paying $20 per item by going through my indie/chain or paying $8 for the same book through Book Depository/Amazon – it’s a no brainer. And it is insulting to my intelligence to beseech me to stop buying online. Franky, that “leftover” $12 supplies my home with 10 litres of milk (which lasts 3 days) or 1.5 other book titles. A win/win situation for my family.

And if the issue is “Buy Australian” there are a number of generalist Australian online bookstores who do supply romance titles and promote them, discuss them and enjoy them too. They provide a wonderful service and operate in a similar way to indies (except they know what their customers want to read). And their prices are reasonable, too. A shout out to Booktopia and The Nile.

The question is: do I still buy from my indie? That would be a resounding yes though not as much as I used to. I buy all my Australian and New Zealand authors and publications from them. It is the same price (and in many instances, cheaper) than buying those titles online. Will this save the store? I don’t know. Would I return to my local indie if it set up a romance section? Perhaps. I love reading the last pages of a book before I buy it and I also love skimming through a book to get a sense of the language that is being used. Once again, I can’t do that online. So it would really depend on the price and the quality of the titles being sold.

The important point to observe is that readers who choose to buy their books online do so for a number of reasons, be they cost driven, being too busy to be bothered going into a bookstore or quite importantly, inaccessibility of titles readers want to read.

I am putting my money where my heart is – and my heart is with the suppliers of books that I like to read. So if this means that bricks and mortar bookstores will close down I will be amongst the many who will be saying “Mea Culpa”.