It happens that the manager of my own "Readers' Den" department is one of the principal hosts of the conference, and the Mississauga Library was well-represented in the audience. More than 100 people attended from libraries throughout southern Ontario.
It was a joy to spend the day focusing on the singular pleasures of reading and the experience of people who read. Part of what makes doing readers' advisory fun is that you're already talking to a reader. You're not trying to convince anyone to read; you're a bridge between a reader and books. There are more passive forms of RA, such as book displays. But the active, one-on-one RA that this conference focuses on is - as you know - a part of my job that I really enjoy.
I'll highlight three speakers from the event.
Catherine Sheldrick Ross, into the minds of readers
Making this day especially noteworthy to me, the keynote speaker was a library hero of mine: Catherine Sheldrick Ross, the name in research on reading.
Some years back, I blogged about a book she co-authored, Reading Matters: What the Research Reveals about Reading, Libraries and Community. A chapter had been assigned reading, and I enjoyed it so much that I hunted down the book and read the whole thing. Let me tell you, in library school, that was a rare experience for me! I was so pleased to meet Dr. Ross and tell her I had blogged about her book. I'm going to send her the post, and I'll also read her newest book, The Pleasures of Reading: a Booklover's Alphabet.
An excellent and engaging speaker, Ross highlighted some of the results of her thirty-year inquiry into the minds of avid readers. Ross' research - in-depth interviews about the reading experience - has formed the basis of RA practice. Indeed, understanding the reader's experience is the key to good RA.
And that understanding begins with reflecting on our own experience. As you read these questions, think of how you read.
Are you a selective reader, feeling your time is very limited and what you read must always be very good and worthwhile? Or are you an ominvorous reader, reading everything from quality literature to genre novels and books others dismiss as "trash"?
Do you read only fiction, only nonfiction, or both?
Do you re-read books, feeling that books are old friends who should be re-visited and re-understood? Or do you feel that there are so many books to read and so little time, that you never or rarely read a book more than once?
How do you find your books? Do you have an organized system that you employ, or do you find books more randomly and haphazardly from an eclectic group of sources?
Through questions like these, we in the audience began to reflect on our own reading practices. We then did an exercise, each table discussing a different dimension of reading, and then sharing with the group. I am pleased (and kind of amazed) to say it was one of the more useful library exercises I've done. We could have gone on for twice as much time.
Many insights into the reading experience are nearly universal. Our choice of reading varies not only at different times in our lives, but at different moments, depending on what's going on in our lives at any particular moment. And reading is an enduring paradox. It takes us away from our own lives, into another world - the infamous "escape" that is often denigrated. Yet at the same time, reading broadens our scope, enriches us, strengthens our connections with the world. (Did you know that people who read tend to have more empathy than non-readers?)
Ross has written about a phenonmenon that most readers will relate to: she calls it "finding without seeking". You are reading a book for pleasure. Perhaps you picked it up randomly or were drawn to its beautiful cover, or read a review. You're reading it for pleasure, not information. But as you read it, you recognize something of yourself in the book: a relationship, or a dilemma, a conflict. You reflect on your own experience, and you end up learning, and growing. Ross says:
Readers choose books for the pleasure anticipated in the reading itself but then, apparently serendipitously, they encounter material that helps them in the contex of their lives. (Ross, Finding Without Seeking, 1999)Although learning about RA begins with reflecting on our own experience, the most important dictum of RA is four little words: It's Not About You. Keeping our own opinions and judgements out of the picture can be challenging! Dr. Ross says: "RA is a conversation, and the library is the place that fosters that conversation."
Claire Cameron, The Bear
Claire Cameron, a Canadian author, read from her current book The Bear, and talked about her sources and her writing process. She was a wonderful speaker and reader. I must confess that I began reading The Bear about a month ago, and put it down, feeling it wasn't for me. But after hearing Cameron read, I'm going to give the book a second chance.
The inspiration for The Bear was an actual bear attack that took place in Ontario's Algonquin Park in 1991. It was a very unusual attack that gave rise to a great deal of publicity: a healthy bear attacked and killed two people. The bear was not threatened, he was not starving - the couple was cooking dinner and the bear left the package of ground beef untouched. What's more, the couple were experienced campers who did everything right. It appears that the bear went out of its way to hunt and kill people.
Using this event as a jumping-off point, Cameron imagines the story from the point of view of a five-year-old girl, hiding with her younger brother - their father manages to hide them in a camping stove while trying to fend off the bear - then surviving in the woods, alone. (There were no children in the actual incident.) The story itself is gripping and suspenseful, and ultimately hopeful. Readers I speak to in the library are recommending it highly.
Cameron had a great deal of experience as a hiker, climber, canoer, and adventurer before becoming a writer. One of her best stories at RA in a Day was about her return to Algonquin Park, with her two sons, after the publication of The Bear. If you're intrigued, there's a good profile of her here.)
Peter Mendelsund, What We See When We Read and Cover
The final speaker of the day approaches the reading experience from an entirely different perspective. Peter Mendelsund is a book designer and art director for Alfred A. Knopf Publishers in New York. Check out the very impressive catalogue of book covers he has designed: Mendelsund.
Mendelsund has just published two books simultaneously: a coffee-table retrospective of his work, called Cover, and a meditation on what the experience of reading feels like, called What We See When We Read.
Mendelsund's talk was a departure and a great end to the day. A fast-talking, witty, literate New Yorker, he jolted us alert after a long, slow afternoon. Most of us love book covers, and Mendelsund's talk was a fascinating peek into the process of their creation.
In response to a question, Mendelsund mentioned that his least favourite projects are usually books expected to be very popular, where authors have earned huge advances. In those cases, there are a lot of stakeholders, high expectations, sales pressure, and many opinions to contend with... and thus much less creative control.
On the other hand, Mendelsund's favourite projects are usually classics that are being reprinted. The author is dead, the publishing house has little investment, and he gets to do pretty much whatever he wants. These books are often being published in a series, an authors' complete work, for which Mendelsund designs an overall concept, then variations for each book. With a slide show, he walked us through the process of designing this series of the work of Franz Kafka. Also, check out his designs for James Joyce, especially that most inspired Ulysses.
Mendelsund's references were more literary than those of most public library workers. He was name-dropping Melville, Joyce, Dostoyevsky, and Foucault, and I suspect that went over the heads of many people in the room. But his famous cover design of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo probably made up for it.
A final note about Peter Mendelsund. He mentioned that his first career was as a concert pianist. (His parents were survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto, and playing classical music increased one's chance of survival.) After decades as a musician, now with a family, he needed to change careers to have a more stable income and health insurance. That's not uncommon, especially in New York. But how many people buy a book on how to become a graphic designer, create a portfolio, and leap into a job as a book designer at a major publishing house? Those are some impressive talents at work, and not only the artistic kind.