Histories of (Famous Five) Reading

fullsizerenderMy academic work falls into the disciplinary fields of publishing studies and history of the book (you can find more about my research here). One of the sub-fields of the history of the book is the history of reading, the area that – as book historian Robert Darnton put it – ‘remains the most difficult stage to study in the circuit that books follow’ (from ‘What is the History of Books?’). Empirical reading histories can nonetheless be traced in a range of ways: through borrowing records of libraries, for example, such as those found in Perthshire’s Innerpeffray Library, or in accounts of reading in letters between correspondents or in private diaries (an excellent resource for which is the Reading Experience Database), or in marginalia (such as those in William Gladstone’s extensive collection of books housed in Gladstone’s Library). The excellent primer A History of Reading was put together by one of my Stirling colleagues, if you want to find out more.

A recent trip to my parents made me pull off the shelves old copies of Famous Five books. I was partly reminded by the publishing of Enid Blyton for Grown Ups parody titles in the run-up to Christmas (sample titles: Five on Brexit Island, or Five Go Gluten Free), but also by the memory of what I’d done with these books, which I’ve already written about briefly.

img_3022Like many bookish children, I’d tried to make my own library (though it was hard to persuade borrowers to visit), and the evidence of the ticket holders are still there (though none of the tickets – where did they go?). In some titles, I’d recorded where I’d got the books from (reminding me of the specific shelf where the books were stored in our local bookshop). In others, I’d ticked off titles I already had, and done sums to work out how many there were left to acquire.

I’d also marked all my books out of 20 (with quite a grade variation – from 8/20 to 20/20 in the copies to hand), and used my Puffin name plates to indicate that the puffins were engaged in the same activities as George (obviously an early crush). In the front of another, I’d also itemised which of the titles I owned, and which my brother. (I found some of the ones that belonged to my brother; they had less marginalia and no grading.) This – I am sure – was indicative of some sibling rivalry/internecine book-owning strife.

Looking at these material objects made a whole load of reading memories come flooding back, but also left me with some gaps in remembrance, and also a question as to what were my grading criteria. Some might say that Enid Blyton wrote to a formula, but to one child’s mind there was a high degree of differentiation.

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ThankBooks

This week I’ll be chairing a Book Week Scotland event at Stirling Central Library. It’s a ‘ThankBooks’ panel, featuring several writers (Alan Bissett, Lisa Ballantyne, Billy Letford and Shari Low) who will be talking about a book, author, character or library that made them what they are today.

C7 (2)Preparing for the panel has made me think about my own early reading and writerly inspirations. I was a bookish child: here’s me with my nose in a big book of fairy tales, one of my favourites when I was little. Perhaps no surprise that when I came across Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories as an adult I loved its exhilarating, weird, erotic feminist retellings. Who can forget the moment in the title story when the mother gallops, gun blazing, to snatch her daughter from the hands of the murderous Marquis? Or the ‘wily, perspicacious and resourceful’ Puss-in-Boots, who ‘can perform a back somersault whilst holding aloft a glass of vino in his right paw and never spill a drop’? (After reading this stuff, real life is always going to seem a little grey.)

My favourite book of all as a little girl was J M Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy, which I read innumerable times. I had an edition with the Mabel Lucie Attwell illustrations, and my parents copied me out a flying Peter Pan on a big piece of paper, which I had stuck to the lampshade in the middle of my bedroom. In my head, though, the story was much wilder than the charming illustrations suggested: the interloper boy who steals the children away from the security of their home to fly across the skies to Neverland couldn’t be tamed. Many years later, I delighted in Geraldine McCaughrean’s official sequel, Peter Pan in Scarlet (commissioned to continue the flow of royalties to Great Ormond Street Hospital) which perfectly captured Peter Pan’s wildness and prickliness. Continue reading