The Unexpected Reading Group

In this special post we learn more about a student-led initiative, the Unexpected Reading Group, founded by PGR student, Val Derbyshire. Visit the blog again on Wednesday to learn more about Mary Linskill, one of the ‘unexpected’ authors whose work the group has been reading.

Over the 2016-17 academic year, I’ve been running the Unexpected Reading Group out of Sheffield College at their Hillsborough campus. The project is a Widening Participation funded scheme. The reading is ‘unexpected’ because it focuses entirely upon books and texts which are not traditionally read or well-known.

For example, we’ve read a work of children’s literature by Charlotte Smith (1749-1806). Smith, many of you will know, was a writer who inspired and influenced the works of many more well-known writers, such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Walter Scott. However, she is very little read today by readers outside of academia.

We’ve also looked at a Victorian novel by Yorkshire author Mary Linskill (1840-1891). We read The Glover’s Daughter (1871) by Linskill and this novella became the group’s favourite text over the entire year. Everybody loved the ‘Yorkshire’ element of her work, from her use of language to her construction of character. It was also a fascinating text for English language students within the group, who noted that the dialect in the novella is gendered. The hero, Reuben, speaks with a broad Yorkshire accent, whereas the heroine, Margaret, speaks very properly. There’s evidence to suggest that women do speak more standard English than men, so this might be why this is demonstrated within this text.

The group meets once a month at the college to discuss the book which has been circulated at the previous meeting. So far, as well as Smith and Linskill, we’ve also discussed a romantic comedy, a trashy romance, a graphic novel, an apocalyptic contemporary novel concerning media misrepresentation (very topical) and a novel which was marketed as ‘the Russian Harry Potter’.

The group has attracted a diverse range of members but what links them all together is a love of reading. The overall aim is to broaden understanding of literature in an informal, enjoyable setting and also provide a taster for those with an ambition to study literature at University level. Last year, two of our group members left – one to study Literature at the University of York.

I have immensely enjoyed running this group. The group, in turn, have told me how they have felt that the range of texts we have read has expanded their own reading habits, as well as exposing them to new texts, reading outside of their comfort zone and formulating opinions on different types of texts. Feedback from the group has suggested that the members felt that it has given them confidence to discuss texts in a seminar style setting and helped them prepare for their future university careers.

The Sheffield College have indicated that they wish to continue with the group into the new academic year and I have resubmitted my application for funding. I’m hopeful I’ll be successful but I’ve also expanded the bid. This time, I’m hoping to secure additional funds to start operating the group out of a local homeless shelter. Offering a free book club might be a good way to help their service users consider literature in a new way and perhaps help disenfranchised members of the community re-engage via literature and potentially consider future education prospects. Literature, and reading literature, can be an inclusive activity. After all, everyone has an opinion on what they like to read, what makes good literature, and it’s always good to challenge these ideas. Over the past year, I’ve found reading outside of my comfort zone has been an immensely rewarding experience.

The project was recently featured on Sheffield Live.

— Val Derbyshire

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