Ellie Jackson’s reading journey

This year, we have again taken part in Sheffield Hallam University’s Ideas into Action initiative. We ask the students to write their own reading journey (a task they seem to enjoy, as they’re rarely given the opportunity to think about reading for pleasure) and to read and review a book or author popular with our original interviewees, all born at least 60 years before the students. (Click here for more information on these tasks.) It’s always interesting to see our material through the eyes of people born in this century, and we hope that the chance they get to look back increases their understanding of the world when their grandparents and great-grandparents were young. We hope to publish more of the students’ work in the next few weeks.

As a child, I was introduced to books from the first moment I can remember. I was born and raised in a small town on the outskirts of Nottingham, and moved to Sheffield in September 2020 to complete my degree in English Literature. I was taken to the library in our small town multiple times a week by my grandparents, with rows and rows of more books than I could count. This experience is encapsulated into my memory; my younger self being completely mesmerized by them. I later realized that the library probably had no more books than a couple of hundred, a miniscule amount as opposed to other libraries I have visited after this. And so my reading journey began at a young age; the earliest books I remember reading are the Tales of Beatrix Potter and the Winnie the Pooh collection. My parents would read them to me before bedtime each night over and over again. I was fascinated by how the pictures in the books came to life, from the authors’ writing and the way my parents would adopt a new tone for each character. In my room I had a bookcase of around two hundred books, and even more that were given a space in our spare bedroom as my parents would never throw them out, and I must have gotten at least five new for each birthday and Christmas.

Winnie the Pooh, by Ernest Howard Shepard (illustrator) (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

My grandparents have always had a vast impact on my life in general, but more so when it comes to my reading experiences. I never had a positive reading experience during my years at primary school, having to make my way up the reading stages with the Biff and Chip book collection was something I dreaded and remember asking my then teacher, if I could read The Wind in the Willows, or Peter Pan. I sped through the books, and I knew I could read more advanced ones. I was told that I was lacking in punctuation and quite far behind in writing skills than most of the other children in my school year, and that I needed extra curricular sessions with my English teacher after school. I became completely disheartened and despite knowing I was a great reader and it being my favourite pastime, I started reading less and less. My grandparents would collect me from school each day, and later informed me that they had noticed I wasn’t as interested in reading anymore, and no longer wanted to sit with my nose buried into a book before dinner. And so, instead of taking me to the library to borrow a book, they had taken me into their attic and let me have the choice of what I would like to read. From this day, I discovered multiple authors that have had a huge impact on my personal reading journey so far, such as Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five, as well as Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens. After listening to many of the Readers’ Voices interviews on the Reading Sheffield website, I realized myself and Margaret Young both shared our first reading experiences and with our grandparents, as her grandfather was an ‘avid reader’ and grandmother read classic novels much like the ones I was introduced to by my own grandparents, ‘Dickens and so on’.

‘It’s a great cake. A bride-cake. Mine!’ An illustration by John McLenan from Great Expectations (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

As I was searching through the Reading Sheffield website to find more of others’ reading journeys, I came across Gillian Applegate’s interview, and despite being born sixty-one years apart, I noticed we share a similar enjoyment in reading Charles Dickens, specifically Great Expectations. This story is one I remember well and also studied during my GCSEs and came across again during my first year of university. I enjoyed watching the BBC adaptation of Great Expectations almost as much as I enjoyed reading the book for the first time, and found a love for watching TV and film adaptations of other celebrated novels too. Gillian also discusses her love for historical novels, which definitely resonates with myself as I prefer to read classic, timeless novels such as Wuthering Heights and War and Peace, both of which I have appreciated in the past few years.

Enid Blyton’s work as a whole has inspired much of my reading journey, The Magic Faraway Tree and The Enchanted Wood becoming my favorite books for years of my childhood after being read by my mum before bedtime. I also used Enid Blyton as a case in point within my Extended Project Qualification at A level, discussing her as an author but also arguments put out through the media about her work. I absolutely loved creating this project as her books had been a huge part of my childhood, and I achieved an A*.  Regrettably, in order to complete my degree, I have many great (and some, in my opinion not so great) books that I have to read, consequently causing a lack of reading for pleasure and rather for work purposes. An example of the books I haven’t enjoyed so much throughout my modules is Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. Both are great books for those who enjoy adventure fiction, and I loved the psychological analysis of both novels involving Freudian analysis. However I personally did not engage as well with these novels as I have with the others I have studied, such as Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Animal’s People by Indra Sinha. I hope to begin reading much more for myself from now on and to work on managing my workload of novels along with ones I am personally eager to read, as there are so many books still sat on my bookshelf that I feel guilty for neglecting, while picking up the same books I have been reading all year. I have recently commenced reading Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers for the other half of this project, and plan to purchase the rest of the collection to this book for my own reading pleasure.

Here are Ellie’s thoughts about Gaudy Night.

The Reading Journey of Carolyn W

By Mary Grover

Carolyn was born in Sheffield in 1944. Twenty years later, while working as an analytic chemist, she married Bob whose reading journey is here.  

Unlike Bob, who found his own way to books and reading, Carolyn’s reading was always nurtured by her parents. Though she cannot remember being read to, she thinks she must have been because ‘of the books I remember, sort of nursery rhyme books and there were things like that’.

Hey diddle diddle

Throughout her childhood she was bought comics and annuals: School Friend and Girls’ Crystal. She particularly remembers a compendium:

a big one like the annuals but it was all old stories, not sort of the comic strip things and the quizzy things like they are now anyways.

This sounds like one of the Wonder books described by some of our other readers.

Walkley Library

She was soon enrolled by her mother at Walkley Library. Along with Hillsborough down the hill, this was one of the first two branch libraries with a separate and sizeable children’s section. While Carolyn was feeding her appetite for Enid Blytons at Walkley, Bob was finding his supply at Hillsborough. The first books that Carolyn can remember reading ‘all by myself’ were these Enid Blytons.

In the 1950s Carolyn and the family went on book-buying expeditions together.

The bookshop in town, Andrews, . . .we used to go there on a regular basis, all three of us. Mum, Dad and I. And they always used to . . . anything that you sort of, you know, that you wanted, we went there and got it. And that was the other thing. My dad was always into sort of encyclopaedias and things like that.

A few years younger than her husband, Carolyn largely escaped war and post-war austerity. Her father was a railway engineer, and as she grew up, an only child, there were more resources of all kinds available to her family. The support of both parents for their daughter’s school work was practical and constant.

If I needed a book for school at home, you know, because there would be some books where there weren’t enough for everybody to have one.  So that I could have it, they’d always buy me one so I could have it at home.

Her family must have been the only family in Sheffield to have bought a television to help their daughter prepare for an exam on The History of Mr Polly – set for O level in about 1960. (The BBC Genome project shows that it was broadcast in six episodes in autumn 1959.)

That was on the telly and we hadn’t got a telly.  . . . We found out it was on the telly. Anyway, Dad organised something with his well-off friend.  He got a new telly and we got their old telly.

She remembers the grandeur of the set itself.

You had to have the curtains closed. And it was one of these tellies with doors. It was this tiny little screen and it was a huge thing. And it had doors and this tiny little screen. And we managed to watch Mr Polly on it.  Yeah, but dad was tickled that he had managed to get this telly so that we could watch Mr Polly.

But it was her mother who was the strongest influence on what she read. When she was a teenager she shared many of her mother’s favourite authors: Dick Francis, Nevil Shute and Agatha Christie, a taste she shared with Bob.

Agatha Christie (Creative Commons Licence, National Portrait Gallery)

Nevil Shute

Like Bob’s mother, Carolyn’s took the Women’s Weekly in preference to any other women’s magazine:

they were never quite as, I don’t know, Mills and Boony as other magazines, the serials in that. I did read those as well’.

When Carolyn got a place at grammar school, right over the other side of town and a tram journey of four to five miles, she was taught in her first two years by an inspirational English teacher.

And she was great, she was. And I think maybe then that’s when I started reading, as I say, more school sort of books.  I did end up going through all the ones girls were used to read in those days.  Like Jane Austen and Jane Eyre, all that sort of stuff.

When Carolyn was asked if she looked out for a difference between ‘popular’ and ‘quality’ writing she wasn’t sure that she did.

Well, I don’t know.  I suppose . . .  I read them and I had no idea of the quality of the writing that was in those books.  I just never liked the romancey sort of stuff.

Though she had the Arts and Books section of the Telegraph by her side when interviewed, Carolyn isn’t sure how much influence these reviews had on her reading choices. The only review she can remember having an effect on what she chose to read was one of Jilly Cooper. She read it and concluded that these novels were not for her.

Carolyn became an analytic chemist at a refractory works in the early 1960s (where she met her husband). She benefitted from the post-war increase in further education and training. Very few of our female readers coming to adulthood before the Second World War were offered on-the-job training. Though Carolyn was a reader and came to her firm with good science qualifications she had always found English Language examinations hard. It was while she was on day release that one of her lecturers pointed out to her that she could do an O level in English Language that was specially designed for scientists. By gaining a pass in that examination she was able to gain a licenceship in chemistry.

Even though I read a lot, I don’t think I’ve got that good an imagination to write … to make things up.  My imagination works in a different way.

Here is Carolyn’s interview in full.

The Reading Journey of Bob W

By Mary Grover

Bob was born in Sheffield on 3 February 1940. He was interviewed with his wife Carolyn. They married when Bob was 24 and Carolyn was 20.

As they talk about their reading, it is clear that Bob and Carolyn have read alongside each other throughout their marriage, each prompting the other when the name of a title slips the mind. But this was not the pattern in Bob’s own family.

Bob grew up in the one of the biggest housing estates in Europe, Parson Cross, in the north of Sheffield. The Council began to build in 1938, two years before Bob was born, so the estate grew up with him. There were few books in the house: ‘there’d be a Bible and that would be about it’. Bob’s father read the Daily Herald in the week and the News of the World on Sunday. His mother read Women’s Weekly, but not ‘Mum’s Own – that was trash’. Bob cannot remember being read to but remembers one book from his childhood:

…that was just a little paperback thing, about a dozen pages, and it was nursery rhymes.  About that size.  And I remember reading these and learning every one off by heart.  And that was my precious book, you know.

Bob was early learning to read.

I knew I enjoyed reading and I knew that I wanted to learn to read. But no, my parents weren’t big readers at all.

Nor were Bob’s two older sisters. ‘So, everything I did was on my own bat, I think’. He dismisses the idea he might have found something to read in his primary school:

of course, you didn’t have books in school, so I used to go to the library.

Hillsborough Library, which Bob visited as a child

Although there had been pre-war plans, no permanent municipal library was built in the vast new estate for many years so it was two miles down the hill back towards town to the magnificent Hillsborough Library that Bob made his way by tram to find the books he sought. He didn’t know what he was looking for exactly but would just pick up something he liked the look of: ‘it was probably short stories or something like that’.  He joined a second library to increase choice but Hillsborough’s children’s section was one of the best in the city, established in 1929, so it was there he tended to find the adventure stories he enjoyed. Though Enid Blyton was not a favourite author, he did borrow the Famous Five mysteries and ‘that sort of thing’.

Bob reflects that he ‘never grew into the adventure stories for adults’. He went to the cinema when he grew out of Enid Blyton to watch cowboy and war films but never wanted to read about war and fighting. Throughout his life he seems to have kept his reading and his cinema going separate, actively disliking adaptations.

When he could afford it, Bob would go down to the local newsagents, Hadfields at Wadsley Bridge and buy, not comics or magazines, but books.

I bought a series of Sexton Blake. Thin little books, Sexton Blake, yeah.

The first book Bob remembers that he felt was an adult book was Stevenson’s Treasure Island. When he passed the 11+ exam and went to grammar school, he began reading the classics. ‘You had your own books, which I had to read, you see?’ He remembers reading David Copperfield ‘on my own bat because I wanted to see what it was like.’ It was his favourite book. Though he enjoyed the thrill of adventure in a film, in a book he tended to look for interesting characters.

I had to be interested in people. I mean, you can’t get [a] more interesting character than David Copperfield, you see.

Original illustration from David Copperfield

He tried to find the same pleasure in other novels by Dickens but they never delivered. Once he had seen the film of Oliver Twist he lost interest in reading the book. He made it through Hard Times and Nicholas Nickleby but as for Martin Chuzzlewit: ‘I couldn’t make it through that and [then] I gave up on Dickens’. Bob concludes that he still enjoys the classics but not ‘the difficult classics … I wouldn’t try Ivanhoe or some of the other 19th … 18th century authors, you know’. There was something about the language of Dickens that felt close to his own.

Beyond a certain point … I want to read easy and I found David Copperfield, and Charles Dickens on the whole, easy to read.  They were speaking my language, you know. Some of the older authors, more classical authors, were speaking not my language, you know, and I didn’t want to keep looking in dictionaries to see what the words were or anything like that, … so, I think, that’s it.

Bob is resistant to language that he fails to connect with. He can’t get on with the language of the past that needs a dictionary to unlock it but he ‘cant stand modern literature with modern words.’ Even though the world of work and his work mates introduced him to all these words, he doesn’t want to read them, happy to be called ‘fuddy-duddy’. ‘It’s not my style of talking’.

In fact Bob is very clear about what he likes and why he likes it. He likes description which adds to a story or makes a character real.

People criticise Agatha Christie[‘s], you know, style of writing as not very good and so on, but she’s very, very good at descriptions. You got into a book and immediately it hits you what the story was about, and you got engrossed in it.

He found that Christie’s contemporaries had too much aimless description for his taste and looks to modern thrillers where description has a clear function.

He has other tastes too. He likes whimsical books: the short stories of P G Wodehouse and the humour of Kingsley Amis. But he doesn’t like depressing books. George Orwell and Nevil Shute are not for him. Nor are books that are full of unpleasant people.

I want to go into a different world and enjoy it and I have to like the people I’m reading about. If I don’t like them – not interested in them.

And Bob found lots of books that did interest him and which helped establish the writing skills that were essential to his job in a large Sheffield refractory firm. He met his wife Carolyn there: she was a chemist and he worked in Research and Development. In their interview she gives him an unsolicited testimonial: ‘Can I say he still writes very well?’ Bob had not only to conduct research projects but to communicate the findings of the research team effectively.

We had to interpret the project and put it forward, you see. So, you had to know how to get your points of view over and tell a story in that sense. So that and the work you did at … the essays you had to write at school, you see. They all helped, you know. You got a vocabulary that you could use and if you’d got a vocabulary, it was very good for you. If you hadn’t got a vocabulary, you were struggling, you know. So, that did help.

The feel that Bob developed over the years for a language that was his own clearly helped him develop an appropriate voice for communicating with other professional scientists and engineers. Sheffield’s industries, as so many of our readers show, depend on the communication skills born of a love of reading imaginative literature.

You can read Bob’s interview here.