My Personal Reading History

By Natalie Haigh

Natalie is a student at Sheffield Hallam University and has been taking part in our joint project through the university’s Ideas into Action initiative. Here is Natalie’s account of how she became a reader.

My name is Natalie Haigh, I’m 22 years young and I was born in Rotherham in 1998. I grew up in Rotherham. My parents moved there before I was born and still live there to this day. My grandparents also live in Rotherham and have lived there for the majority of their lives, as my grandad worked as a solicitor nearby in Sheffield. When I was five years old, I attended a very small primary school in my local village which was a largely working class area. I then moved on to a comprehensive school close by where I completed my GCSEs. After leaving comprehensive school, I moved on to study at a college in Rotherham where I completed my A Levels. That brings me on to the present day. I am currently a second year student at Sheffield Hallam University where I am studying for a BA Honours degree in English Literature. An English Literature degree was a natural choice for me because I have always had a passion for reading and writing ever since I can remember.

My very first memory of reading was in primary school. I can vividly remember learning to read. I read the Biff, Chip and Kipper books by Oxford Reading Tree. Reading was the activity that I always looked forward to the most at primary school. I can remember the extremely cosy reading corner where my teachers read all sorts of different books to my class. My favourite was Sheila Lavelle’s novel, My Best Friend because it was filled with mischief and adventure. I loved it so much that whenever my teacher would come to the end of a chapter and tell us it was time to move on to maths class, I begged her to start the next chapter and carry on reading to us. The same teacher created a reward scheme for my class. Every time a member of our class excelled at something or made a kind gesture towards someone, she would reward them by putting a marble in a jar. We kept a record of how many marbles were in the jar and collected them, because when the jar was filled with one hundred marbles, my teacher granted us a full Friday afternoon to do anything that we wanted. This was called ‘Golden Time’. I would always go to the cosy reading corner during Golden Time, and I would sit and read books there for hours. Meanwhile, most of the other children were off painting or watching films together. I have such fond memories of Golden Time because it was a rare occasion when I could read at school all afternoon without any distractions, in a comfortable and cosy environment.

My parents and grandparents always read to me too. My grandparents had a house full of books and I would often stay over at their house. I remember being fascinated by their bookcase. As a small child, their bookcase seemed huge in comparison to me. I have always been very inspired by my grandad and what he achieved in his career. He always told me that he learnt everything he knew from books and reading. Therefore, he was always very encouraging when it came to reading and was keen for me to read as much as possible. One thing he taught me to always do when reading, which stands out in my memory the most, is that when I come across a word I do not know the meaning of, I should look up its definition in the dictionary and make a mental note of it. This is something that has stuck with me and that I continue to do today. My grandad always had either a book or newspaper in his hands, and my grandma has a love for glossy fashion magazines. My grandma has an extremely vivid imagination and she would tell me fascinating stories about her childhood and the adventures she got up to. Reading the Biff, Chip and Kipper books and hearing the stories of what my grandma got up to when she was younger sparked my interest in adventure stories. I went on to read Enid Blyton’s The Magic of the Faraway Tree and Joyce Lankester Brisley’s series, Milly-Molly-Mandy. I noticed that the Milly-Molly-Mandy book series was also loved and treasured by one of Reading Sheffield’s interviewees, Margaret C. When I was around ten years old, I was given Beaver Towers by Nigel Hinton to read by my favourite teacher, another children’s fantasy novel that I absolutely adored and could not put down.

Moving on to comprehensive school, I was given the novels Animal Farm by George Orwell and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck to read. As much as I enjoyed reading and studying these novels, my personal reading tastes evolved and I became far more interested in reading thought-provoking self-help books, books about business and enterprise, and autobiographies of people who inspired me. In fact, I actually went through a phase of feeling guilty about reading non-fiction. I battled with personal insecurities that stemmed from me thinking those books were not academic enough for me to tell people I was enjoying reading, or even to include in this blog. However, I eventually came to my senses and realised that those were the sorts of books I enjoyed, and that ultimately, were a huge part of my personal reading journey. I was reading so much fiction in school such as Animal Farm and Of Mice and Men, that I had a yearning to read something new and refreshing. I noticed that Reading Sheffield’s interviewee, Jocelyn Wilson, also spoke about reading the right sort of books. She says

I did a project on keeping a notebook of all the things I’d read… I know that it was criticised by the person who taught English at school, saying, “I can’t think why you read all this rubbish when you’re capable of reading something so much better” (Hewson, 2015, Jocelyn’s Reading Journey).

I strongly resonated with this part of Jocelyn’s reading journey as I personally felt a lot of pressure to read fiction, especially in school. Therefore, I did not want to discuss the sort of books I was actually reading and enjoying with my school teachers, purely out of shame and fear that they would be unimpressed and disappointed that a lot of the books were non-fiction.

One contrasting factor of my own personal reading journey to those of Reading Sheffield’s interviewees, is that I am from a different generation. The rise of social media and advances in technology changed the way I was reading. Rather than going to my local library and taking out books to read, I found myself reading most books on my Kindle. I also read a lot of different people’s online blogs. Blogs were a new and exciting medium to experience. Moreover, I could easily interact with the authors of the blogs and engage in conversation with them about their works by commenting and receiving instant responses. I quickly discovered that an entire online community for authors and readers existed in the world of blogging, sort of like lots of online book clubs. Therefore, reading started to feel more like a social activity than an independent one. Moreover, so much of the reading that I do is online now, which is one of the main ways that my reading history contrasts to many of Reading Sheffield’s interviewees. Now, the vast majority of my time is taken up by reading books, plays and academic works for my degree. For me personally, whenever I go on holiday is the time that I really indulge in reading books that I genuinely want to read. I take a few books away with me every holiday and I usually get through them all. On holiday, I don’t have to worry about anything else. I can get completely immersed in a book whilst soaking up the sun. And it is during times like those when I remember why I fell in love with reading.

Bibliography

Grover, M. (2019). Margaret C’s Reading Journey. Reading Sheffield. Retrieved from: https://www.readingsheffield.co.uk/margaret-cs-reading-journey/

Hewson, V. (2017). Jocelyn’s Reading Journey. Reading Sheffield. Retrieved from: https://www.readingsheffield.co.uk/jocelyns-reading-journey/

‘A completely new novel to me’

By Archie Harris

Here is another of our Sheffield Hallam student guest posts – the first in which a student of today reviews a book or author popular with our original 20th c readers. Archie chose to write about L M Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.

Anne of Green Gables was a completely new novel to me at the beginning of this process, with me having neither heard of the novel or Lucy Maud Montgomery herself. However, I am incredibly grateful to be involved in this course as I feel lucky to be exposed to such a plethora of new and intriguing tales I may have never discovered throughout my regular day to day life. The first in a series of seven novels chronicling the adventures of titular character Anne Shirley, Anne of Green Gables is generally considered a classic of their youths for many people born in the 20th century. Perhaps the best way to illustrate the quality of the novel is through its sheer longevity. Originally released in 1908, Anne of Green Gables has withstood the test of time and still remains a classic read for younger generations starting their journeys into a love of fiction. This permanence is not only due to the high quality of the writing and storytelling but also the nostalgic warmth it brews in many parents, compelling them to read it to their children and have them fall in love with it too.

With the high volume and high intensity of university work, I usually do some research and preparation before reading a book, frequently spoiling the plot for myself to make the process of analysing and discussing the novel more streamlined. However, for this I decided to take myself back to my childhood and simply dive headfirst into the pages with no prior knowledge or expectations whatsoever. And what a joyous experience it was, watching young Anne subvert the prejudices of those around her and win their hearts made me feel like a child again, a sensation I have been chasing since I flipped the last page.

From the moment we are first introduced to Anne until the very end of the novel we cannot help but to support her in everything she does and wish her the best. This feeling is paralleled by Matthew Cuthbert who, despite mistakenly adopting Anne when in search of a young man to help with the farm work in his old age, falls in love with her rampant imagination and spirited soul before the pair can even make it back to his home from the train station. Anne even manages, eventually, to win the affections of Marilla Cuthbert despite her stern and traditionalist approach. Watching their relationship develop over the course of the novel was humorous, touching and come the end of the novel, utterly heart-shattering.

The epitome of Anne’s character and the reason she is so endearing and means so much to so many is her complete selflessness and unwillingness to take anything lying down. Her back and forth rivalry-come-friendship with Gilbert Blythe, whom I notice is much revered by those of Reading Sheffield, particularly Val seems to have had a soft spot for this young gentleman, is one of the most satisfying relationships we see blossom over the novel. We see an immensely strong friendship and mutual respect develop over years from the childish teasing of Gilbert calling Anne ‘Carrots’ in reference to her red hair, which led to him getting a slate smashed over his head, to the pure altruistic act of him giving up his job so she can work closer to Marilla and care for her as she is going blind and has lost her brother Matthew. This coupled with Anne giving up her life’s dream and everything she has worked for since moving to Avonlea to make sure her adoptive mother receives proper care demonstrates exactly why both of these characters, and the novel as a whole, are so effortlessly charming and endearing.

It was therefore no surprise to me, upon closing the novel, that when I researched reviews and opinions of others on Anne of Green Gables I was greeted with nothing but a wave of glowing commendations for this book and smiling tales of people’s childhoods spent buried in the pages of this wonderful novel that has touched so many. It was these recommendations accompanied with my own overwhelmingly positive experience that persuaded me to purchase more books in the series to get lost in over the course of, hopefully, a long hot summer of 2021.

L. M. Montgomery’s bright outlook on the world is a welcome contrast to the bleak views of many, especially through recent struggles, Anne’s smile and burning red hair shines through the dark clouds for so many. Montgomery’s writing is spectacular in this novel, incredibly accessible to a modern audience for the time it was written and fluently funny throughout. She tickles your funny bone with one hand and tears your heart out with the other as every emotional beat hits harder than the last. We smile every smile and cry every tear along with Anne as we become totally and completely captivated by her story, willing her to succeed at every venture despite her tendency, particularly early in her adopted life, to accidentally do something she most certainly is not supposed to. My personal favourite being when she accidentally gave her friend Diana wine instead of raspberry cordial, causing her to return home drunk and triggering her mother to be less than pleased, yet Anne of course still wins her over as she most certainly will win you over if you are yet to read this novel. Anne of Green Gables is a defining work of fiction for many childhoods past, present and future as its sheer charisma is undeniable. It is clear to see why, 113 years after its release, it is still being printed across the globe.

My Reading Journey

By Archie Harris

Students at Sheffield Hallam University have been exploring our interviews with Sheffield readers and our research. They have each written their own reading journey and a reflection on a book or author mentioned by our original interviewees (click here for more information on these tasks). We hope this has given the students an understanding of the world their grandparents and great-grandparents grew up in. For us, reading the thoughts of people born 70 or so years after our interviewees, in a very different world, have made us look afresh at our material. We’re pleased to publish the work of the students over the next few weeks.

In preparation for writing this blog I took what I saw as the most logical step and phoned my mum up to try and pick her brains as to what she remembers about reading to me as a young child. What followed was five minutes of me scrambling around my room trying to find a pen as she rattled off countless books and series that, at least according to her, I had spent half my childhood with my head buried in. The most prominent of which was a collection of Dr Seuss short stories I used to have read to me over and over every night when I was a toddler. To this day my mother and I can quote those stories and often do to cheer each other up on down days around the house, particularly the classic that is Too Many Daves, a personal favourite of mine as a child that my mother and I still quote around the house to this day. It was Dr Seuss that I believe kickstarted my lifelong adoration of poetry and poetic form as most of his writing has an almost musical rhythmic quality. Another of my great loves as a child was the Mr Men series, owning the whole collection and reading each one over and over until the binding was worn out. I even went as far as to paint myself blue, bandage up and go to World Book Day at school as Mr Bump. Mr Sneeze also stands out in particular as one book that got especially battered as I read it almost constantly as a toddler, turning over from the last page and going straight back to the beginning. My mother passed down her love of reading to me and I grew up with my nose in a book. As I had no siblings to play with the next best thing was to immerse myself in a whole new universe to transport myself away from rainy Derbyshire.

To be honest, as much as I enjoyed personal reading, I was far less infatuated with the assigned reading in primary school, often reading a book as fast as possible to simply get it out of the way so I could get back to the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid I was probably reading at the time. My grandparents also had a profound effect on me and my reading journey, two or three times a week they would take me to the library whenever they picked me up from school to grab a new book to read. Thirteen years later I now suspect this was to shut seven-year-old me up for an hour or two, which was successful for them and also got me even further interested in reading.

Like most people my age, one of the major literary influences in my early life was the Harry Potter series. I had seen the first couple of films and was instantly engrossed in the fantastical universe J K Rowling had created. This inspired me to pick up all seven books and speed read them before the next film came out to make sure I was up to date, an unfortunate side effect of this was that I had little to no filter between my brain and my mouth as a child and would not hesitate to mention something that happens later in the series to one of my friends that had not yet got around to reading some of the later books. For this I could only apologise. This started a domino effect leading me to binge read many series of books, although somehow missing out on Lord of The Rings until I was much older. The Percy Jackson series hugely impacted me early in secondary school, cultivating a fascination with Greek mythology in tandem with my ever-growing love of literature. This led to an intense yet brief obsession with all things mythological which was reignited for me at university as we began to study The Odyssey and the heavily explored mythos surrounding it.

In secondary school I was indeed that one kid that genuinely enjoyed Shakespeare and poetry. My enjoyment of Shakespeare was more of an appreciation of his immeasurable impact on the English language and culture, with his stories being told and adapted in many forms of media to this day. However, my love for poetry was, and is, very palpable and real. Almost daily you will find me writing some nonsensical poetry on my laptop to be shoved into my folder and never read again. The release of emotion from writing and reading poetry, for me, is unmatched and I will continue to produce poetry for the rest of my life. I have my year 10 English teacher to thank for this, as she pushed me to continue to pursue poetry beyond what we had been studying in class.

Most of my reading outside of university is news articles nowadays as I try and keep up to date on the world and on things I am interested in. This led to me writing a few articles for football magazines over the past few years as when I feel so passionately about something the words come easily. Because of how much I enjoyed the process of writing and editing these articles, I am looking into perhaps pursuing journalism or something similar as a vocation or as a postgraduate degree.

Regrettably, I have neglected to use a library in years now, favouring reading online or picking up books from the charity shop. This has also coincided with me having to read more for school and university work, so I feel I have less time and motivation to read for pleasure. Hopefully after my degree is finished I can relax and spend more time browsing the library and reading for pleasure in the sun like I had done so much as a child.