Readers in Residence: Reading and Identity
The final act of my residency at the National Library of Scotland took place on August 26th - in a packed boardroom of 75 we held a one-day conference on reading and identity. Although I had a few ideas of my own about the subject, including Edward Hirsch's assertion that reading 'delivers you up to yourself' and Simone Weil on the importance of attention, there were so many voices, perspectives and identities that I mostly sat at the back, listened, laughed, thought (very hard) and, on a couple of occasions, nearly wept.
Here are a few things that I learnt:
1. Radical libraries help readers to express their identities
Adele Patrick, Glasgow Women's Library, summed up a 'maverick' collecting and engagement policy that puts women's lives, voices and identities at the heart of the library's work: 'We love the books in GWL and we love the women who use them.' Magi Gibson, GWL's Reader in Residence, reflected on the female reader and women's responses to texts, thinking specifically about Maya Angelou's poem 'Still I Rise': 'It reminds me of the woman I used to be and the woman I want to be again.'
2. Reading has its own crisis of identity in children's books
Vivienne Smith, Strathclyde University, discussed the lack of positive representations of readers in children's fiction: Hermione's reading in Harry Potter is nerdish; Heidi's reading is an abrogation of innocence and Anne of Green Gables' love of books is an abrogation of responsibility.
3. Teen readers prefer paper books to construct their identities
Tara Thomson, Edinburgh Napier University, queried the importance of digital technologies to teenagers, reflecting on some of the typical responses of teen readers in Edinburgh Napier's longitudinal study of teen reading habits: 'I like having my own copy on the shelf' said one, while another said that physical books feel more 'real'.
4. Reading helps the elderly to maintain their sense of self
Lilias Fraser, Scottish Poetry Library, described how reading poetry out loud in care homes can support 'the 4 Rs: Recall, Reinvention, (re)connection, Resilience'. JL Williams and Catherine Street offered a paean to reading's healing powers in their performance The Translucent Body: 'Reading as response to emergency, as rescue. Reading as portal, as doorway, as liminal caravan, as magic carpet, as time machine, as castle wall, as salve, as comforter, as new mother, as new father, as secret cave, as holy water, as bird wing.'
5. Books are a tool for defining identity
AJ McKenna, poet, reflected that transgenderism isn't something frequently touched on in literature, but demonstrated poems can be a powerful way of conveying messages of identity.
'Fait Accompli' by AJ McKenna
I left the books behind:
a coward's way of telling, but a
start, a quiet declaration
of intent, a footprint
left deliberately in snow.
Soon you would know:
no need to ask or tell,
or sit amazed to find you so incurious
about my lipstick and foundation.
At the least, no need to phrase it
in a big, dramatic way.
A minor-key enquiry - you've read them?
A reply which would be all I need to know:
the signs of thumbing on the cheaply-printed pages
the tell that they've been skimmed
as sure as tracks sing sagas to the hunter,
as curtains strangely shut provide
a signal to the spy.
6. Literature complicates, celebrates and resists collective identity
Rebecca Anne Barr’s (National University of Ireland) ‘Ossian Online’ project discussed the challenge Ossian offered to Scottish national identity. Macpherson's 'defiantly strange' poems are 'a text of the margins, negotiating identities - Highland and Lowland; rural and urban; Scottish, Irish and English.'
7. Reading is difficult, dangerous and necessary for personal development
Sara Wingate Gray, University College London, revealed the domination of imaginative fiction on Norwich library's borrowing stats form 1850 to the present. She explained its staying power: 'Fiction is dangerous. It tells you you can be something you aren't yet.'
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