Reading religion

Some of our Reading Sheffield interviewees had vivid memories of the contribution religion made to their reading lives.

… the services were a bit boring but the actual working out [of] the words that I’d never heard, was fascinating.

This was Erica (b.1937) remembering how she learned to read, not in school, but in church.


Malcolm (b. 1925) also remembered religion helping his education:

…And some of the psalms – you know ‘In the year the King Uzziah died I saw the Lord lifted high and up and his strength filled the Temple’. So we learned Biblical scriptures. … I am sure it contributed. … the love of the old Authorised Version and the words of Evensong and Matins still stick with us in a way that modern prayers don’t. That’s not true but they don’t keep you in the same way. I know when I was in training college to become a teacher, people, colleagues, would criticise the Prayer Book because of its language, but this was something that I as a choir boy had to learn, which is very useful for reading anyway because you learned words there that you wouldn’t normally have learned – same with the hymns. I think it was the language of the Prayer Book that kept us there to some extent.

Shirley (b. 1936) owed her whole existence to Methodism – to the Scotland Street Methodist Church:

… church is the connection! [My parents] were both keen Methodists … And theirs was a romance born and bred at church, that’s how they knew each other, the families knew each other, and they were very enthusiastic members, you know, morning and evening and Sunday school and I grew up the same way.


Shirley’s parents shared an interest in church music. She remembered their ‘tune books for the Methodist Church’ in one of the bookcases at home.

‘We always went to Sunday school.  We nearly lived there. … if they were putting something on, we were expected to join in,’ said Edna (b. 1928). Sunday schools and church schools often gave books or book tokens as prizes. The quality of the books varied, of course. Erica was not impressed with her church’s efforts, describing the prize books as ‘flimsy and irrelevant really’. The books at Erica’s boarding school were equally unsatisfactory in her opinion.

It was a Church of England, basically it was a school for the daughters of clergy. And presumably the library was well stocked books that they approved.

Meg (b.1936) was luckier:

The Methodist Church, Walkley

I once took the scripture exam … and came second in Sheffield, with 98 marks. We had to go to the Montgomery Hall to be presented. So I had a book token, and whenever I got book tokens from church – I was at Walkley Methodist Church, on South Road – or the scripture exam, they used to take me to the Methodist bookshop in Chapel Walk to buy books. This occasion, I remember I got an Arthur Ransome book, which was quite a thick book – it was a good token!

Grown-up Meg

Winnie (b. 1923) had kept some books given to her mother, a Salvationist. There was, for example, Jessica’s First Prayer by Hesba Stretton, inscribed ‘Salvation Army Slum Corps’ and presented to Hannah Stacey, ‘for regular attendance, February 2nd 1899’. The Slum Corps was based on Infirmary Road, Sheffield and Hannah Stacey was Winnie’s mother, who was ten years old in 1899. Winnie thought that this type of Victorian book was usually sad.

They were very hard. Like Jessica’s Prayer, in fact I only found that out a few weeks ago and I thought I’ll read this again. She’s on her own completely and living in a garret and I think it was the verger at the local church … Yeah, Jessica’s First Prayer.

Oh he was a coffee stall keeper and he also looked after the local church.  Must’ve been like a verger or something there. Yes. And he took her under his wing and gave her shelter and fed her and took her into church and she’d never been in church before. It’s very – a real tear jerker.


Winnie treasured her mother’s prizes but she was never awarded any herself. ‘Ooh no!  Never! Never! I never went long enough! No, no!’

Doreen (b. 1934), who said ‘We weren’t taken to church, we were sent to church,’ knew her Bible. Her favourite book was Ruth, because ‘it’s homely and it’s like, well, our life really, isn’t it?’

Doreen aged 17

Maureen (b. 1941), in contrast, wasn’t from a churchgoing family. In childhood, she went to services only occasionally, when staying at her grandfather’s house.

I was friends with the family next door, the two youngest daughters there, and we sometimes went to the Methodist church.

Religion became, and remained, important to her.

I’ve got a Bible there, which was given to me after I asked for a Bible for my ninth birthday. This one. And I’ve written in it, because my aunt bought it from … there was a really good toyshop at Firth Park, expensive toyshop, and she bought it me from there. And I put on it: ‘1951. To Maureen, for her ninth birthday from Auntie Edith.’ But I wrote it. And I put how many words are in the Bible and how many chapters and how many verses. So that was mine as a child. I don’t know where I got that from – I’ve not counted them obviously.

Maureen appreciated the Bible as a source of stories, as well as religious teaching.

I mean, if you just read it as a book, you’ve got murders, you’ve got all sorts, you’ve got wars, you’ve got murders … I mean, I’ve just been reading about the king who married Jezebel and all of that, and John had his head put on a platter … so even if you just had no faith, but read it as a book, there’s everything in it really, I suppose. There’s love, there’s hatred, there’s forgiveness …

Her favourite book was Isaiah:

… it’s relevant for today, the things that are happening in the world today were happening in Isaiah – and we’ve still not learned very much, have we? We must have, but I think a lot of what is prophesised … came true. The words that he used – and I do have doubts sometimes – the words that he used actually came to fruition in Jesus, and then the gospels, you know, what Jesus said as well, but … yes, Isaiah stands out for me.

Reading the Bible strengthened Maureen’s faith:

I think you grow in the spread of what you read, and your faith changes all the time, you can read something one day and you can read it another day and it means something different to you.

Some of our readers had relatives who were preachers or ministers. Anne (b.1930) remembered that her grandmother was not a reader but had:

a big bookcase that was full of books but, my grandfather, she kept all his books, he was a, he wasn’t an ordained minister, but he was a minister in the church.

John (b.1929) also remembered ‘devotional books’ at home. He grew up in the Wesleyan Reform Union. His mother worked for years in the Book-room, the Union’s bookshop:

… in effect, it was the headquarters of the Wesleyan Reform Union and Sheffield was chosen as the centre for it and it was on West Bar, Sheffield. And my grandfather became the very first full-time general secretary of the Wesleyan     Reform Union, and that’s when he actually moved to Sheffield to take up this post and also the ministry at the Attercliffe Wesleyan Reform chapel on Bodmin Street. It’s still there, it is now a mosque …

John’s relatives featured in The History of the Wesleyan Reform Union, which he read ‘more than anything’.

This was written by the general secretary at that time. And of course, my grandfather’s mentioned there, my great-grandfather is. There’s pictures of them and my uncle, who was a minister there.

So strong was the link between church and family that John thought:

… that if my mother had been – it sounds silly this – if my mother had been a man, she’d have been a minister, because both her elder brothers went. She didn’t. The only job she ever had, as far as I know, was as assistant to her father in the Book-room in Sheffield. But she was a constant worker for the church right through, as long as she could be.

In later years, with his memory suffering, John returned to books from his youth:

… one thing now that I like reading is the hymn books, because it’s the Bible in another form. … The point I’m making, why I like the hymn books, is because things like that you remember better, because my memory’s very bad now, so I can’t remember things. I remember this one verse in particular:

I am not skilled to understand

What God had willed and God has planned

I only know at God’s right hand

Stands one who is my saviour.

And things like that you remember, and it makes you remember them. This is what I try to do now, to sort of stoke up my memory.


With thanks to my colleague Mary Grover for making the notes on which this post is based. 




Mais où se trouve la bibliothèque?

Continuing website editor Val Hewson’s reading journey

In the late 1970s, I spent a year in France as part of my university course. I was the English assistant in a school, the Collège Jules Ferry, in the small town of Montluçon.

Montlucon and its château (Creative Commons)

If you look at a map of France, Montluçon is just about in the centre, near Vichy. It is at heart a medieval town, with a castle on the top of the hill, a 12th century church below and narrow streets twisting around. The castle was home to a hurdy-gurdy museum (the only one in the world, they told me). Around the historic centre is the newer town, with some beautiful 19th century houses, modern apartment buildings and, across the River Cher, a Dunlop factory. The school where I worked is based in a former convent near the centre. For a few weeks I lived there, before I moved to a tiny flat on the banks of the Cher.

Narrow streets twisting around (Free Art Licence)

Detail of the old town (Free Art Licence)

I must have taken books to France with me. I would never have gone so far away for so long without cramming as many as I could into my trunk. But I don’t remember titles. Fiction rather than non-fiction, I think, for relaxation. Catch 22 is a possibility, as I read and re-read it then. Loyalty oaths, the soldier in white and Major Major promoted by an IBM machine with a sense of humour. Almost certainly I packed at least one of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond novels, as I was devoted to these long, intricate tales of a 16th century adventurer. Maybe there was a Georgette Heyer – Frederica, at a guess. Filled with good intentions, I might have put in set texts like Madame Bovary and Germinal. No, never Germinal, which I hated.

At all events, these books would not have lasted me long. Clearly I needed to find other sources of reading material. If there was a school library, I never found it. There was a bookshop in town, with lots of Gallimard, Garnier Flammarion and Livre de Poche paperbacks. I used to go to a newsagent, for the local newspaper, La Montagne, and for magazines like L’Express or the occasional Paris Match for celebrity news. I remember a story in Paris Match that the Duke of Edinburgh was mysteriously ill, and a teacher begged me to ask my mother if this was known about ‘chez vous, en Angleterre’. I also used to buy the International Herald Tribune, where I discovered Doonesbury.

Livres de Poche

Some books came through the radio. BBC Radio 4 on long wave gave me Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, read by Robert Powell. ‘Midnight Orgy at Number 10!’ and Agatha Runcible saying ‘too, too sick-making’ (a phrase I still use). And I learned the Answer to the Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

At some point, I realised that Montluçon had a public library. I think I had to pay a small subscription. I embarrassed myself at the registration desk by using the verb ‘joindre’ [‘to attach’] than ‘s’inscrire’ [‘to enrol’], and was glared at by the librarian. In hindsight, ‘attach’ perhaps better describes my feeling about libraries. I suppose I did read some original French novels but mostly I borrowed English and American detective stories in translation. There was one about a woman being told that one of her aunts – she had seven? – had murdered her husband and trying to work out which one. I would love to know the title. Anyone?

Just before Christmas, the grumbling appendix I’d had for some years finally had enough and I ended up in the Centre Hospitalier, having an emergency operation for peritonitis. I spent the next ten days there. (As the first ever English patient, I was a sensation and staff came from all over to see if I was the same as the much more familiar French patient. One nurse looked at my freckles and informed me that I could probably have them surgically removed. Perhaps it was a joke.) Lots of my students, their parents and the teachers visited me. Most brought marrons glacées and the like, which was nice, but someone – one of the English teachers? the headmaster’s wife? – thoughtfully arrived with two books. She had bought, she said, the only English books in the local bookshop. This was, for someone twitchy if there was no book within a foot or so, the best thing she could have done.

The books were by Agatha Christie. There was her autobiography and a Miss Marple story, Sleeping Murder. I remember Fontana paperbacks, with distinctive covers. I rationed them carefully, as I didn’t know where my next book would come from. Christie’s autobiography was, helpfully, very long, although it failed to explain her famous disappearance in 1926.  Sleeping Murder is the rather creepy story of a young woman who, visiting England for the first time, stays in a house she finds she remembers. I’m not a great Christie fan, but both books were wonderful distractions from stitches, glucose drips and the tea served in French hospitals.

Still in France at Christmas, I was farmed out among various kind teachers, until I was strong enough to fly home. Wanting me to enjoy my first Noël, they gave me a hand-printed silk scarf and a book, Joachim a des Ennuis [Joachim in Trouble], by Goscinny and Sempé. I still have both scarf and book, and I still laugh at the story of Nicolas being pursued about the house by his visiting Mémé [grandmother]. ‘Un bisou! Viens encore me faire un bisou!’ [‘Come and give me another kiss!’]

To Kindle or not to Kindle

Frank (b.1938): Oh no, no… I’ve always read for pleasure. I’ve done that the whole of my life. Still do… I’ve actually bought a Kindle now.

Books or Kindle? Kindle or books? The debate staggers on.[i] (I prefer the real thing, as a glance at my home would show you. But I’m very happy to go digital when travelling, whether on holiday or on a bus, and the Kindle is a good way of reading books I don’t want taking up precious shelf space.)

Here is what Reading Sheffield interviewees, born between 1923 and 1950, have to say. (Since we are interested in 20th century reading, we don’t generally ask about e-readers, but sometimes they come up.) This is not by the way a scientific survey on any terms.

Not everyone is open to the idea:

Anne (b. 1944): Ohh, I couldn’t be doing with that! … I don’t know. It’s electric, int it? I’m allergic to anything electric.

But those who’ve bought (or been given) a Kindle appreciate the convenience.

Christine (b. 1940): Yes. I’m afraid I’ve got a Kindle now as well because we go to France and I used to take ten books in the car – and now I get the Kindle, sit in the garden in France and bingo! … I still prefer a book. I only take the Kindle when we go away and when you’re in France it saves you, well you have to take books with you because it’s difficult to find English books in France.

For one interviewee the Kindle gives her family the chance to share and even to read books they may not choose for themselves:

Mavis (b. 1937): … there were five of us on one Kindle ownership and you can get five copies of a book, people can use the same book. So my son bought his three children, two of who are adults, and his father a Kindle. Mine’s not on that because I had mine first but those five have back copies of probably a 100-odd books now because every time any one of the five adds a book it’s available to all the others. … I pinch my husband’s [Kindle] and let him have mine on occasions because I don’t have access to these. I swap with my daughter who doesn’t have a Kindle as well… We tend to have, if not similar tastes, sufficiently similar for it to be things you wouldn’t have chosen yourself but when you pick it up and read it you think ‘Ah’. … my granddaughter came and said, ‘Ooh, can I have that after you?’ and I said ‘No, but you can have it after your aunt.’  So there’s quite a … five or six of us.

The Kindle (NotFromUtrecht) (Own work) (Creative Commons licence)

We ask if owning a Kindle changes reading habits.

Mavis: No.  I look for what I want.  Sometimes I don’t find it. It does mean that occasionally I’ll buy books…. I still tend, if something looks as if it will be of real interest, I still tend to buy a book, specially if I can get it when it’s just published.

E-readers can take some getting used to.

Mary (b. 1923): I tell you what I have got, I have got a Kindle. [The book I’m reading is] very strangely written and I can’t find out who’s written it because I don’t know quite how to go back and then go forwards. It’s my son’s partner, she gave [the Kindle] me. … I can get big print you see. It is small and that is as much as my eye will take. …

Chris (b. 1939): I was given a Kindle for Christmas, which I won’t say I’m struggling with, I’m quite enjoying so I suppose that counts as a book. It’s quite handy though I guess for taking on holiday. The one thing I’m not too keen on, you can’t, well I haven’t found a way of flipping from looking back 27 pages to find what went before. … I’m not very technological.

There’s the business of finding books you want:

Chris: Well I haven’t loaded it up because the ones that you get free are not necessarily the books that I want to read anyway. On the basis that I find looking for a specific author and I find they don’t come free.

Kindles or books, there’s still a lot of rubbish published.

Mary: You can get any book on that. Oh I tell you what the first one that was on it, I don’t recommend it to anybody, was the Hundred Shades of Grey or Fifty Shades of Grey? You have never read such tripe! I managed one, two chapters. It isn’t even well written. … I don’t mind sex if it’s well written!

For some people, the e-reader cannot compete. It’s all about the physical quality of books.

Judith (b. 1939): And I’ve always had this ingrained, you know, get-me-a-book kind of thing. I don’t even want to have a Kindle or anything, because I like the feel of a book…

Peter (b. 1930): No. I think, it sounds a bit smug this, I think the book trade is suffering from unfair competition particularly with these electronic books and whatever so I just do my little bit. If there’s a book I like, I buy it from the bookshop.

No, I’ve seen [Kindles]. I can sit for hours with a book in my hand. I find it very difficult to sit for more than about a quarter of an hour with a screen. That’s probably an age thing, I don’t know. … I like the feeling of a book.

Josie (b. 1942): I’ve got one. I won’t use it. I’ve inherited it from my husband and until I get too feeble to turn a book and my eyesight’s too bad that I can’t see there’s nothing like having a book in your hands. Seeing it and feeling it and turning the pages, looking how much you’ve got left to read … no, I’ve never touched it. I’ve no desire at all.  I can see when you go on holiday instead of taking twelve books with you if you’re flying, a Kindle would be handy.

I just don’t know [what it is about the actual physical feel of the book]. It’s just comforting, isn’t it?  It’s like you’re touching … I love it, I just love it. … It’s quite a phobia when you think about it.  I didn’t realise I was this bad.

Kindles may be light and slim but for our readers swiping lacks the pleasure of turning pages, and the faint plastic/metallic smell is not to be compared to the woodiness of paper. (I do know Kindle owners who love their actual devices, who are distressed if they have to change or send them away for repair.)

In the end e-readers generate mixed feelings. There is uncertainty about the ability to make them work, but also interest in the convenience they offer. But for some of our readers, Kindles just don’t feel right.

Jude (b. 1950): Erm, not at the moment I wouldn’t [get a Kindle]. If I went travelling I would actually … I wanted a long read but at the moment, I quite like the pleasure of… A book, yes.


(With thanks to Reading Sheffield colleague Mary for gathering the information.)

[i] E-readers may already be yesterday’s technology. In 2015, in the USA, for example, 19 per cent of adults reported owning an e-reader, down from 32 per cent in early 2014. But of course many people read books on their smartphones or tablets.