She used to get lost in a book: oral history seminar write up

Shelley Trower and Amy Tooth Murphy of the University of Roehampton led a fascinating seminar at the Institute of Historical Research last month where they discussed Memories of Fiction, an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project on oral histories of reading.

Dr Trower said the project, which is conducting oral histories of reading groups, will provide a new kind of resource, differing from the many interviews with authors.

“The project ties in with a growing interest among scholars of literature from the 1970s onwards, when there was a shift in interest in the author as creator of a book to the reader creating meaning,” she said.

Dr Tooth Murphy has carried out most of the 50 interviews, with members of reading groups affiliated to libraries in the London borough of Wandsworth. The project team has been comparing these findings with discussion of reading in the 100 Families oral history project. This project was conducted in the 1970s and interviewees were asked a whole range of questions about their family lives and growing up – reading formed only a very small part of the interview.

The team has been using NVivo software to analyse the transcripts of the older interviews. NVivo enables researchers to conduct qualitative analysis of large datasets by entering keywords or “nodes”. The software has been described as enabling “perfect objectivity” – a view that Dr Tooth Murphy disputed.

“You can very often see what you want to see if you are hellbent on finding certain information,” she said.

The archive revealed that reading was a “gendered” act, said Dr Trower, with women most often said to read fiction and men to read non-fiction. Interviewees discussed their mothers’ reading habits, which were described as indiscriminate, escapist and compulsive – often getting in the way of domestic duties. One interviewee described his mother neglecting to make his tea because she was “lost in a book”. Fathers’ reading, on the other hand, was said to be much more directed and purposeful – they would read newspapers or gardening and car manuals.

Questions after the seminar focused on the contemporary interviews. Most members were middle class women, whose main motivation for joining was the lure of free books. Sarah Waters and Jodi Picoult were popular authors, with Waters bridging the gap between the “mainstream and ‘proper’ fiction”, said Dr Tooth Murphy.

There was another trend among the interviews. “We come from a university to talk about books so they tend to reel off the classics. But then they fill in the gaps later,” she added.

Interestingly, few of the readers mentioned books as being life-changing or providing moments of epiphany. Dr Tooth Murphy surmised that this may be because of the socio-economic background of their interviewees.

“When people talk about transformative fiction it’s often because they have needed to find something in fiction, for fiction to explain something about the world,” she said.

  • The next seminar is a celebration of the third edition of the Oral History Reader – a seminal work in the oral history canon – led by its editors Rob Perks and Al Thomson. This will take place on Monday December 14 at 6pm in Wolfson Room NB01, Basement, Institute of Historical Research, North Block, Senate House, Malet St, London WC1E 7HU. Afterwards there will be opportunity for a glass of wine and further discussion. The seminar is free and all are welcome. Please note that this takes place on a Monday, rather than the usual Thursday. For more information click here.