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We can all be reluctant readers

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On Wednesday night, I became a reluctant reader. I found myself in a situation in which I ‘had’ to read a particular book because someone other than me got to tell me to, and I didn’t like it. In fact, it really upset me.

Here’s what happened. I agreed to take part in a TV programme about books and reading. It’s a Gaelic thing – I’m a Gaelic speaker. As a side note, literacy in the Gaelic community is not terribly high.

Two people take part in each episode. Ahead of time, each nominates three of their favourite books and the production team pick two to feature in the programme. Each guest also nominates a fourth book for the other to read and a segment of the programme explores how each gets on with the other’s choice. The idea is that people try something new and it’s perfectly fine if one guest says they didn’t enjoy the book and gave up halfway through. As far as I have seen of other episodes, however, most people quite enjoy their fellow guests’ choices as a change from their normal reading matter. A friend of mine quite liked a sci-fi novel she read for the programme, for example, when she prefers lighter and more women-oriented books normally.

I’m up for trying books I wouldn’t normally pick up – in fact, I belong to a book club for precisely this reason. This year I’ve read Lucky Jim, Empire of the Sun, a collection of Caribbean Short Stories and more that I wouldn’t normally have tried. I haven’t enjoyed or indeed even admired all of them, but I read on because I enjoy a debate with friends over a bottle or two of wine.

For my fellow guest on the TV programme, I chose The Owl Service by Alan Garner. I chose it because I think it’s brilliant, and that Alan Garner is a genius. I also chose it because it’s relatively short, readily available in lots of nice editions and completely accessible. Because I had no idea who the guest might be I also thought it was a bonus that it has appeal for both genders and it’s not an entirely modern setting. It has a Celtic myth at its heart – although that’s not why I chose it – and it’s a YA novel in so far as it has young characters.

And then they sent me my fellow guest’s selection. My first reaction was ‘are you [insert a rude word] kidding me?’

The book is not readily available – in fact the TV team had had to go to an antiquarian bookseller in Dublin specialising in ‘Irish interest’ books to find it. It has been out of print since its first issue in 1950 and the bookseller’s site shows a tired hardcover volume with its dustjacket – if there ever was one – long gone. I can just imagine how clean and clear the typeset would(n’t) be to read. It has no ‘author’ as such, because (as Wikipedia informs me) it is a transcription of one of the longest Scottish Gaelic stories ever taken down from an oral storyteller. It was recorded in 1871 in Paisley from a cobbler from the island of Islay by someone called Lachlann MacNeil, on behalf of the Victorian folklorist John Francis Campbell.

My heart sank. First off, I don’t like to read in hardback, and especially not 1950s volumes. In part this is because I travel pretty much twice a week with hand luggage only and the last thing I want in my bag is a heavy – and potentially dusty, smelly or fragile – book. I don’t like the way handbacks handle either; I like covers to bend. I also like well designed and typeset books, and to put it bluntly, this book is neither. That’s because it was not published for the general market, where a publisher needs to attract lots of different readers by making the book an attractive object in its own right, with cues to pique interest such as an eye-catching cover.

The problems don’t end there. Gaelic orthography was revised extensively in the 90s and so the spelling in the book is now non-standard. It’s also in a relatively unusual dialect, and from the 1870s at that. It’s hard to find an analogous example in English – perhaps the Yorkshire dialect sections in Emily Brontë.

I should say here that I probably would have managed it without too much bother. I have a Celtic Studies degree and I could make like it was 1994 again, I had a tutorial to go to and therefore I had to read something I had no real interest in. I have a pre-revision Gaelic dictionary somewhere I could dust off if I met something I didn’t understand. But it would have been more of a slog and taken me longer than reading an English book or modern text in Gaelic. And I have a huge pile of those at home I am keen to read if only there were enough hours in the day.

The sad thing is that I would probably have been happy to find this in a second-hand bookshop and take it home to read or not as I saw fit. But my big problem here was that someone had chosen a book that by any sensible assessment is an incomprehensible choice in the context. It is simply not for a general audience. Which made me wonder what he was up to.

Was he, I asked myself, enjoying having power over someone else? Was it one-upmanship? Did he plan to show what a marvellous scholar he is, reading such things over his cornflakes? Did he hope that I would fail? Anticipate that he would somehow enrich my life by introducing me to 1950s editions of 1870s folklore transcriptions? Or does he fail to understand the concept of audience – that other people’s enjoyment is not likely to be promoted by enforcing on them narrow, specialist and idiosyncratic interests of one’s own.

Now, none of this was personal – I don’t know the guy, he doesn’t know me, and he made the selection before he knew it was for me anyway. But personal is important when it comes to books. Booksellers, librarians and others make it a point of principle to find out what their ‘customers’ might like before making a recommendation. And if that contact is not possible, should we not think along the lines I did – picking from those things I like one that makes no unreasonable demands and speaks to, I think, a very wide potential audience – rather than making reading into an imposition on someone else’s will and time?

This all made me think about how reluctant readers are created. It does that, when you are suddenly made into one yourself.

Oh, and the guest’s choices for himself? A 15,000 word novella in familiar modern language by the well-known author Iain Crichton Smith, available in a clean modern edition. Book bullies (intentional or otherwise) are often hypocrites…

Mairi is the MD of Barrington Stoke and our accessibility editor. On the blog she writes on books, literacy, dyslexia and the publishing industry in general.

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