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An Oral History of Readers' Life Stories

What do we remember about the books we have read - from childhood onwards - and why? Reading is often experienced as a private activity, which takes place in silence, on one’s own. Yet reading groups have grown immensely in popularity over the past two decades, bringing reading experiences into the public domain. In what ways do we share our memories of reading?

Memories of Fiction is interested in both individual and collective memories of reading fiction. We are firstly setting up an oral history archive of interviews with members of local reading groups, to explore memories as described in individual life stories. In doing so, the project will provide a new kind of resource – differing from the numerous interviews carried out with authors, from oral history interviews (for the ‘Authors’ Lives’ archive at the British Library) to radio and other interviews by journalists, literary critics, fans and other readers. By turning to readers themselves, the project will make available new material enabling insights into memories of fiction and life stories. How are memories of books associated with particular experiences and emotions? How do readers make use of fiction in their life stories?

One thing that is interesting about reading groups is that they turn written text into group talk. Scholars of book history often note how reading became an increasingly private activity over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, due in part to the rise in literacy, but book groups interestingly highlight the social potential of reading. Thus the project is concerned not only with individual memories but also with how memories of fiction are exchanged with others. After working with individual interviewees, the project researchers will work in the reading groups. Having identified clusters of books recalled across a number of interviews, these books, and memories of them, will then be discussed in groups. We are interested in how these shared memories compare to individual recollections. In what ways can group talk change how we remember fiction?

The project will challenge assumptions that reading is merely a private, personal activity. It will consider how reading and storying the self may be related, establishing how individual memories can be shared and related to a wider social and historical context.

The project’s findings will themselves be of interest not only to individual academics but to reading groups themselves. We will disseminate the research through academic publications and also through public talks and a website. As well as providing access to the interviews, the talks and the website will provide information and a forum through which readers can respond and feed back into the project.

 

Click here for the external project website and blog.

Funded by AHRC

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