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I keep track of my reading in Goodreads and last year finished 84 books. Looking back on them there are a number of patterns that emerge, and I thought it might be interesting to blog about overall trends and some specific titles that I particularly enjoyed. Note these 84 titles are just those books I read from cover to cover. I also dip in and out of a lot of academic books – usually it is rarely necessary to read those cover to cover for what I need as an academic historian. But the 84 books were read fully.

Unsurprisingly a high portion, over a sixth, of the books finished were Doctor Who ones. Yes I’m a big fan. Most were fiction, including some of the fairly recent new Target novelisations of Tenth and Twelfth Doctor stories. But I also read older books, both more recent Who full length novels, 1990s ones like Paul Cornell’s Human Nature, and some pre-1989 Targets. A particular highlight among the Who books was the new novel Scratchman, based on a movie script idea by Tom Baker and Ian Marter, and turned into a novel more recently by James Goss with Tom Baker’s help. This was completely bonkers, and a delight from start to end. It also made some fun creative decisions writing-wise, in a similar way to the experimentation that Steven Moffat did with his new Target novelisation of his 50th anniversary episode The Day of the Doctor. Most of my Doctor Who reads were fiction, but I also read some Obverse Books Black Archive books, which analyse individual Doctor Who stories, and are always fun.

After Doctor Who the next biggest chunk of books were classic literature. Non-English titles (read in translation) were Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers (which I insisted throughout on referring to as the Muskehounds), Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. All fantastic reads, but the first and third particularly so. From 19th century English literature I read Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (not a single likeable character in there I think!), Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (that one superbly done), and reread my favourite Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend. From slightly later was EM Forster’s A Room With a View. And I read and enjoyed Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, though more for the adventure and scene setting than the hefty romance novel elements.

I made a deliberate effort to read some Scottish books this year, including Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song which I had never read. I really enjoyed that, though more for the sense of place and impressive presentation of language. Another Scottish book read set in a similar era was Donald S. Murray’s As the women lay dreaming about the Iolaire disaster. And I read and enjoyed David Greig’s play Dunsinane, a sequel of sorts to Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Another Scottish author read was Iain Banks – the scifi “Iain M Banks” version of him! – with his The Player of Games, the first of his Culture novels that I’d read, and an inventive plot based around game playing. Another scifi book read was Michael Moorcock’s steampunk The Warlord of the Air, a theme that continued with a reread of Sterling and Gibson’s The Difference Engine. Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars was a fun scifi alternative history of the early days of space flight. And from the Worldcon scifi convention in Dublin’s panel on Irish fantasy and scifi I learned about 19th century Belfast writer Robert Cromie, and read his The Crack of Doom.

Another recommendation that I picked up from the Dubin Worldcon was Jane Gilheaney Barry’s Cailleach about witchcraft and a family in rural Ireland. Many other fantasy books were read over the year, including Ben Aaronovitch’s first Rivers of London, Diana Wynne Jones Deep Secret, Charles Stross The Nightmare Stacks, Ekaterina Sedia’s The Secret History of Moscow, and Andrew David Barker’s The Electric – that last an unexpected joy, a love letter to old films and the magic of cinema.

I’ve mentioned a number of 2019 rereads already. There were others, including Kenneth Grahame’s classic The Wind in the Willows, Mary Stewart’s The Hollow Hills (part 2 of her Merlin trilogy), Susan Cooper’s Greenwitch (part 3 of her Dark is Rising fantasy series), Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, and my annual pre-Halloween reread of Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October. For that last one, a Lovecraftian delight, I even treated myself to a first edition copy of the book. I reread it every year, without fail.

I finished many non fiction books. Some were related to my academic research, including Murray Pittock’s Enlightenment in a Smart City and Martha McGill’s Ghosts in Enlightenment Scotland. Others were read purely for fun. I greatly enjoyed Mary Beard’s SQPR, a history of the Roman empire. Also Chris Lintott’s The Crowd and the Cosmos, about the Zooniverse project, which was arguably more interesting for its discussions about issues of handling big data and crowd participation than the astronomy content. Other Tolkien books read included Ian Brodie’s The Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook about the films (highly recommended) and two Tolkien books bought in a Palgrave sale, The Keys of Middle Earth (excellent introduction to Old English and Norse etc. studied through Tolkien’s reuse of themes/topics) and the less successful The Riddles of the Hobbit. I also read graphic novels, including Doctor Who actress Jessica Martin’s excellent Life Drawing, and a British Museum manga exhibition book.

Crime novels were also a presence in my reading, ranging from classic crime (including the first Campion and an Agatha Christie) through more modern works (including a Hamish Macbeth and the first Ellis Peters Brother Cadfael – the latter yet another reread), and my first read of Donna Leon’s Venice set crime novels, read just after we came back from a trip to the city. I’m less interested in real life crime or anything too gory, but like books that have a good sense of place and plot. I lean towards older crime novels.

Just three computing books show up on my 2019 list. A fun, quick read was Steven Howlett’s A Diary of an 80s Computer Geek, which recalled 1980s British home computing, albeit with a heavy leaning towards the ZX Spectrum. Far less successful was Cara Ellison’s Embed with Games, which promised interesting insights into game developers, but ended up being far too much about the author’s own life and travails. Far better for me was Jason Schreier’s Blood, Sweat and Pixels, which gave an often agonising behind the scenes account of the development of a good number of computer games, both small-scale indie ones with a single developer, and huge large studio projects. It did not always end well, but was a riveting read.

Other than this there were some other scattered books. I particularly enjoyed another Obverse Books publication, Paul Magrs’ festive Bowie tale Stardust and Snow. Recommended reading, especially for any David Bowie fan. Another highlight was the reprinted edition of the Usborne World of the Unknown Ghosts book. This book captivated many children back in the 1970s and 1980s, but somehow passed me by. Now rectified!

So it’s been a good year of reading for me. Almost all read on my Kindle with a gigantic font (think the youngest children learning to read book style, including some Ladybird books) that helps me overcome significant reading problems from neurological disease. Next year I think I’ll continue trying to read more word literature books, and already have some lined up waiting on my Kindle. But beyond that who knows! Looking forward to it anyway.

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Photo of Grand Canal in VeniceI recently returned from our silver wedding anniversary trip to Venice, our third visit to the city since the 1990s. We always go in winter, out of season. It’s much quieter, and very atmospheric. But of course you run the risk of the acqua alta or high tides. And this year has been exceptionally bad for that, with already the worst tides to hit Venice for over 50 years. Given that, just days before our long-planned trip, we considered carefully whether we should still go. But taking into account the tide forecasts, and armed with our wellies we were taking anyway, we went ahead. We know the city well, and were confident we could get on well enough. Also we checked that our hotel had electricity and its lifts were working. As it was we flew in on another day of exceptionally high tides, albeit later in the day after levels had dropped a bit. Even so, when we got to our hotel the staff were still in rubber boots, albeit expecting to be back in normal footwear the next day.

I was most struck by the sense of resilience among Venetians we met. Everywhere there were still signs of the recent problems, with raised walkways at the ready if needed. Many shopkeepers were still cleaning out their flooded shops, and more metal flood barriers were being attached to buildings in case the high floods returned. And, of course, home owners were hugely affected, and trying to restore a sense of normality to their damaged homes. Everywhere many Venetians still wore wellies out and about, even on drier days, and were getting on with things in a stoic manner. But we always found people welcoming, kind and generous.

As a disabled visitor Venice poses many challenges, indeed I hadn’t thought I would ever get back again until my neurological disease unexpectedly became more stable for a time at least. I walk with two sticks permanently now, and struggle with stairs and distance. Venice is best explored on foot, but then you have to contend with bridges – with steps up and down each side – and of course crowds, even if the latter are far less of an issue out of season. We did see a wheelchair user boarding a vaporetto – water bus – but both of us wondered how well he would get on elsewhere in the city. There are lifts now for some of Venice’s larger bridges, but they are often out of order. And that still leaves many smaller bridges to cope with. To add to the hazard many tourists stop on top of bridges to take photos and selfies, so become obstacles. Much cursing. At least most folk were walking on the right hand side, in the Italian manner.

On the plus side we made many wonderful new memories. Much of our time saw visits to familiar sites. I was particularly keen to go back to the Accademia Gallery, to see massive detailed paintings by Gentile Bellini and others. I especially love the enormous city scenes with architectural details, that seem to jump off the canvas, like a 3D picture or stereo photo. This time I also saw the newly restored Vittore Carpaccio narrative cycle of St Ursula paintings. Gobsmacking. On the downside there were a ridiculous number of stairs in the building, and only limited lifts – asking about a lift on entrance got no helpful response, so after buying our tickets I battled up the opening stairs to the first floor. The lack of lifts would deter me from going back. But there are some gorgeous artworks in there. Also on the art front my husband Martin had an unplanned but wonderful visit to the Museo Querini Stampalia where he was blown away by the amazing ceilings and delightful collection of paintings and other artworks. He couldn’t stop talking about it and he’s not normally into art like this.

Another highlight was riding the vaporetto water buses, up and down the Grand Canal. We used these to shortcut the amount of walking I needed to do, and to cross the Grand Canal easily. So it was very much a case of leapfrogging from one stop to another. I’d forgotten the sensation of sitting inside the vaporetto stop (a floating box with seats), rocking gently, waiting for the vaporetto to arrive and bump heavily into the stop. If you want to use the vaporetti to help with mobility problems like this buy a multi day tourist ticket, which is good value. You can even buy one at Marco Polo airport when you arrive, then have the ticket in hand. Vaporetti staff were very attentive and supported me as I made my way on to and off the boats with my sticks. Though I never felt unsafe. I wouldn’t like to do that transfer in a wheelchair though.

Caffe Florian in St Mark’s, the world’s oldest coffee shop, was extensively damaged by the floods, but reopened during our stay. We turned up on my second outing day, got a quiet table inside, and treated ourselves to a wonderful meal of sandwiches, ice cream and cake, amazing coffees and chilled drinks. The service was sublime. A real treat, and somewhere we were delighted to return to. Another highlight was visiting our favourite restaurant, near our hotel, for a lovely Italian meal, in an atmospheric room looking out to a nearby canal. Superb food, and, again, incredibly welcoming service. We couldn’t have had a nicer time there.

Venice is, of course, a city filled with shops to appeal to tourists. I’d made a long list of the shops I wanted to get to, largely inspired by the Venezia Autentica website. In the end some were still closed, recovering from the recent floods. But we did manage to visit the masks shop I wanted to go to, and bought an amazingly blingy full face cat mask. Another must visit was Scriba pen shop north of St Mark’s. Set in an extremely compact unit, Scriba cram in a phenomenal range of pens, stationery and their own marble paper journals and notepads they bind with their own traditional presses. I’m a fountain pen fan, but didn’t need to buy any more fountain pens. But I did fancy a Murano glass dip pen, and the shop put together a set with my choice of glass pen (style and colour), glass stand, and ink colour in a wee bottle. All marvellously packaged up, safe for travels home. I also bought a good sized marble paper covered lined journal. Oh and they have a section of the shop set up where you can try the dip pens before buying.

As an academic I’m obviously prone to buying books. I managed to largely restrain myself this time though, thinking of taking our wellies back in our suitcases (the wellies had already taken up a lot of suitcase space on the journey out). But I was delighted to pick up an Oxford University (!) book about the printing revolution in Europe 1450-1500. Packed full of illustrations and interesting infographics, it was perfect for book historian me. My husband also bought a number of fascinating books in the Museo Querini Stampalia shop.

Having a comfortable hotel was vital. Location was important, given how difficult walking is for me. Luckily we stayed in a great place before, just a short distance from St Mark’s, en route to the Accademia, but in a very quiet side street. As usual I had to sleep extensively, in between days of activity. Luckily we’d allowed time, a week visit this time, but in practice that meant we would fly in, then I slept all the next day, then a day of activity, then another day of sleep, before a second day of activity, then more sleep before flying home. On those days I slept my husband explored Venice on foot and by vaporetto, often in wellies, and had a great time.

Visiting Venice is always a bittersweet experience, and that was no less the case this time. There is a palpable sense of decay, a city clinging on despite the ravages of time. But it is also an uplifting place to visit, full of curious nooks and crannies to explore and get lost in, gorgeous things to see, and welcoming people. Winter has a particular atmosphere in Venice. Magical.

But of course I fear for the city’s future. It’s a clear warning for the dangers of rising sea levels, more uncertain weather and global warming. It’s hard to be optimistic for Venice’s long term future. Though in the short term there are steps that could help, for example getting the much delayed flood prevention scheme up and running, and reducing access to and damage from big cruise ships. It’s likely some very difficult decisions will have to be made about Venice. But for now, anyway, it clings on, albeit increasingly precariously.

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I recently embarked on another reread of JRR Tolkien’s epic fantasy classic The Lord of the Rings. I considered blogging my way through it, but for various reasons, mainly my health situation, I decided against doing that. However I think it still merits a blog post.

It’s been my favourite book for a very, very long time. I first read it back in the early 1980s. At the time I was still using the children’s library in my home town Hawick, and this title was shelved in the “grown ups” section. So a parent borrowed the volumes for me, in turn. I was gripped. A few years later I got my own single volume paperback copy, on a summer holiday day trip to Dundee. It was bought in a tiny gaming shop (RPGs, miniatures and board games) in Exchange Street in the city centre (long since closed). Little did I know that two decades on I’d be living in Dundee myself …

That paperback copy was read lovingly repeatedly over the following decades. I still have it, and it’s one of my most cherished books, albeit in a “well-loved” state by now! But nowadays I generally read fiction on my Kindle, for disability reasons, and have trundled through Lord of the Rings that way several times over recent years.

The book is an epic tale of little people, of various kinds, fighting against adversity. But it’s also a tale of a vanishing rural idyll. And a world of myths and legends, and magic, all vividly imagined by Tolkien in the fantasy world that he created.

As I reread the opening portion, Fellowship of the Ring again, I’m struck by how many things I don’t recall noticing so much before. For example the opening prologue has a surprising amount of spoilers, albeit easy to miss, for what happens later! Likewise I was enchanted by Elvish names for constellations such as Orion and the Pleiades. It very much makes you feel that the book’s Middle Earth is an earlier version of our own world, and that looking up to the sky today you see, by and large, the same view that the hobbits and the elves did that night in The Shire.

Rereading this book is proving to be a delight, as always, and something that I will continue doing for the rest of my life. It never loses its magic for me, and is always a familiar friend to return to.

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I recently read this book, published by the University of Chicago Press, in their Writing, Editing and Publishing series. It’s a compact paperback, 166 pages long.

The book is divided into 28 main chapters, split across the following core sections:

  • Writing in Academe
  • Using Tools that Work
  • Challenging Writing Myths
  • Maintaining Momentum
  • Building Writing Support

Of these I found the sections on tools, challenging writing myths and maintaining momentum most effective. The book’s author is nicely to the point, doesn’t mess about, but gives straightforward, honest advice. There’s much that many academics could benefit from, including making time for writing in a busy academic life, dealing with imposter syndrome, and coping with perfectionism. I also found the book had great advice for handling multiple projects at once, and the generally less often discussed challenge of keeping writing fun, in a context in which it might often seem to become a chore.

On the downside I did personally have big issues with the depiction of humanities scholars, presented as people with only one writing task to focus on, and a relatively easier task as a result than scientists. As an academic scientist turned historian this didn’t fit with my experience. Humanities scholars often juggle multiple writing projects at once too. And, perhaps even more crucially, are often single authors, so must handle all the tasks of academic writing, not shared among a group i.e. all of research, planning, writing, revising, editing, submitting, dealing with peer review, and hopefully proofreading and final publication processes. The challenge can be immense. I don’t think the author of the book grasped that at all. Perhaps she was looking back to more halcyon days.

I also found that it was a shame the book avoided commonly used writing terms like procrastination, which can often be such a problem for many doctoral students. The book does have some good writing tips for postgraduates, but is aimed squarely at later stage academics, who have more challenges fitting writing in alongside their other academic workload. Though the book could be of more benefit to part-time postgraduates than full-timers, who must fit vital writing time in around other commitments, including in some cases full-time jobs. I just think that with a few relatively small tweaks and refocusing the book could have been adjusted to help more postgraduate students as well.

So yes I do have critiques. But generally I came away from it feeling very positive. I don’t think that any academic would use every tip and idea in there. But there are lots of good ones presented. And many ideas challenge oft-held unproductive mindsets. It’s also an easy read, well written, that you can dip in and out of. So yes, thumbs up.

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I recently read the new book by Murray Pittock about Edinburgh in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and thought I’d jot down some notes. I was keen to read it, having studied urban history in my postgraduate taught Masters degree. But I also worked as the research assistant on the Scottish small towns project started by Bob Harris at Dundee, and later involving Charles McKean. Both of whom were successively my history PhD supervisors.

The book considers what made Edinburgh at this time such an ideal breeding ground for Enlightenment ideas. To do this the book examines the nature of Edinburgh society, the myriad of networks and connections within the city, and the wider influences at play, such as European links. A series of chapters focus on specific topics and themes in detail, such as trades and professions, the arts, and the literary aspect of life in the city as seen in bookshops and libraries. Generally these sections of the book worked well, and especially those where the complex intermingling of different parts of society was clearly demonstrated. The huge number of pieces of evidence cited could be overwhelming, but is generally well handled, and used effectively. A rare weaker subsection for me was that on divisions within the Church, which seemed to be more narrative than argumentative, and not adequately tied in to wider Edinburgh society and the core arguments that the book was making. But this was a rare exception in what was, generally, a well-written series of chapters and case studies, which amply demonstrated the complex networks within Edinburgh society well.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter examining demographic and socio-cultural aspects of Edinburgh life at this time. This relied to a large extent on incomplete data, especially for the seventeenth century. Fortunately a number of key sources were well utilised, and this chapter laid essential groundwork for all those that followed. Likewise I was constantly struck by how many connections the book highlighted between Edinburgh and the Netherlands, including in trade, education and the arts. I hadn’t realised that these links were so strong at this time, and the book demonstrated this very effectively.

Happily I also greatly enjoyed the chapter about print and reading culture, with its astute presentation of the state of newspapers, bookshops and libraries in Edinburgh. This was a mix of detailed examples – for example Allan Ramsay – and more numerous pieces of evidence, such as an insightful discussion of Edinburgh bookselling as a whole. I also appreciated, given that this fell within my PhD speciality, that this chapter of the book was reassuringly well grounded on prior research and academic writings.

I do have some other critiques though. Firstly for a book incorporating modern Smart City theory so prominently, including in its title and the publisher’s marketing and advertising, I would have preferred a more straightforward explanation of what Smart City theory is, and, indeed, what constitutes a Smart City. There is some coverage of this in the opening chapter, but not to the point enough for me; a pity in a chapter otherwise very good at introducing key concepts to the reader, such as theories of and approaches to the Enlightenment and relevant wider Scottish history. I wonder if the Smart City emphasis was added later in the publication process, but given the title of the book it would have been good to see it addressed more directly at the start.

The other major omission for me is the lack of any concluding chapter. In the print culture chapter the very last paragraph does act as an overall conclusion of a sort. But it’s extremely short, and it would have been nice to allow more space for reflection and a summary of the factors that made Edinburgh at this time such a hotspot for fermenting Enlightenment ideas. A section briefly addresses this in the opening chapter, but it was a shame not to see the threads of the arguments drawn together at the end of the book. Also some of these ideas have been theorised before, for example I well remember my supervisor Charles McKean covering many similar arguments in our urban history seminars nearly twenty years ago. But it could have been usefully summarised here, along with a clear statement of the book’s new contributions to the academic debate.

Those are downsides, but in other respects I would recommend this book highly to readers, and think that it makes an extremely valuable contribution to Scottish history in this period, and urban and Enlightenment history more generally. I would also like to praise how readable it is, very much a page turner. I found it frequently highly compelling, and dripping with interesting snippets. Also I would like to praise the decision to initially publish the book as a low-cost paperback alongside a more costly hardback version. This is still relatively unusual for an academic history book, and makes the book affordable for a wider audience, as it deserves to be.

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My husband and I visit the Edinburgh Book Festival every other year or so, and were back again last week. We’d booked to go and see a talk by Brian May and photographic historian Roger Taylor. But I was also keen to see the bookshops again, which I always find excellent.

This is the first year that I’ve found the crowds a particular problem. I have to use my wheelchair when I’m there, with my husband pushing, and this year getting past other visitors, who’d often stop to chat in the walkways, was a significant problem. I don’t know if there were higher numbers of people attending this year, or what, but it seemed more of an issue than usual. Note we were there on Wednesday 15th August, in the late afternoon and early evening.

I was also struck by how difficult it can be to get the wheelchair into the tents, bookshops, talk venues etc. There’s always quite a slope to go up, and a ridge to get past or bump over. I could never wheel myself in. Even my husband, who’s been pushing my wheelchair for years, struggled, again not helped by people milling around.

On the plus the bookshops were a delight. I always find things there that are real gems for me, that I wouldn’t know of otherwise. My particular highlights this year included a book of 100 Gaelic WW1 poems, most of them written during or shortly after the war, with dual language Gaelic and English translations facing each other in the book. My other main highlight was finding a book of essays by Philip Pullman about storytelling in its many forms. I was reluctant to buy such a chunky book – I have too many books already, and wondered where I’d shelve it! But it drew me back, and I was very pleased to take it away and delighted when I started reading it. Something else I’d have bought before had I known it existed.

Books bought include Philip Pullman essays, George Washington Wilson stereoscopic history, Gaelic WW1 poems and compact dictionary, and a free signed bookplate to go in the Wilson book

Book haul from Edinburgh Book Festival

The talk by Brian May and Roger Taylor was fantastic. They were speaking about Scottish Victorian stereoscopic photographer George Washington Wilson, and launching Roger’s book about him. The audience were all given 3D glasses to wear, which worked from a vast range of seating positions, and enabled us to enjoy the original stereoscopic photos. Quite magical, and enormous fun. Sadly Brian and Roger couldn’t do a signing afterwards, having to dash off to a BBC interview, but we were all offered signed bookplates to go in the book.

Audience of scary looking people all wearing 3D glasses and looking intently at the stage

Audience at Brian May and Roger Taylor talk (photo by Nicole Ettinger and from Brian May on Instagram)

So a fun trip, but some disability niggles. We’ll be back in future, but definitely with my wheelchair, albeit anticipating problems.

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As we near the end of 2017 I thought I’d reflect on the books I’ve been reading over the last year. Note this is the books I’ve been reading for fun, usually on my Kindle. I have a to-read pile for academic books of quite scary proportions – well several piles! Academic books are trickier for me to read, due to my brain damage, because I usually can’t adjust the font etc. I also tend not to get on well with PDF-based ebooks. But I read ebooks avidly for fun, and got through a fair number this year. 89 finished so far, and there may be more yet.

My list of books completed in 2017 is online at Goodreads. I set myself, just for fun, the goal of completing 50 books this year, and have surpassed it. Particularly good again given my MS-like illness, which wipes me out for much of the time, and makes reading extremely difficult.

Looking through the list of books completed in 2017 a number of trends jump out. For example I really like fantasy and horror books. I’m not a big scifi fan, preferring fantasy, sword and sorcery, magic etc. So, for example, I’ve been continuing my read through (and reread in many cases) of all the 41 Terry Pratchett Discworld novels. I completed six more Discworld books this year, numbers 32-37 in the sequence, interspersing them with other reading material. I started reading book #38 last night.

Another series that I’ve been reading throughout the year, and will carry on doing so into 2018, is Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series of comics / graphic novels. I’ve read these before, and love them, and am rereading them on my iPad in Comixology’s guided panel view. There are 10 collected graphic novel volumes in the main Sandman series, and I read numbers 1-6 this year, and am part way through number 7. Again enjoying immensely.

Other comics that I read this year included those shortlisted for the Hugo scifi awards. As a member of the 2017 Worldcon (actually attending it, in Helsinki) I got a voter’s packet of many of the Hugo shortlisted works. And that included the comics up for the award. So I read loads of these. Many of the works, such as Saga, were parts of ongoing series, but I enjoyed them nevertheless, and have thus found more comics that I want to read in future. I also read most of the Hugo-shortlisted novelettes and novellas.

The Worldcon in Helsinki was held in August 2017, and not long after that I read several horror books in the run-up to Halloween. The first was Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Booker-shortlisted His Bloody Project, more crime than horror, but could easily fit into the latter genre too. I followed this with an annual favourite reread: Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October. I recommend this book to any fans of horror, weird fiction etc. Especially in the days before Halloween. It is rather designed to be read daily throughout October, though I always gobble it up more quickly. Other horror works read in October include Robin Jarvis’s The Whitby Witches, and Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree. October was definitely a good month of reading for me.

Although as noted above I’m not a big fan of scifi I did read several Doctor Who books throughout the year. For me Doctor Who is less a scifi series than a storytelling engine with time travelling aspects. I also read famed scifi writer Michael Moorcock’s The Jewel in the Skull, though this is very much a fantasy novel of his, rather than the scifi that some may associate him more with.

Something new for me this year was reading a number of play scripts. I haven’t done this since I was at school, wading through Shakespeare etc. Thanks to attending a nationwide cinema screening of a live performance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead I read the script of this play afterwards. To my surprise, finding play scripts vastly easier to read than most print books – lots of space on the page, not too much crammed text to wade through – this was followed by Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen of Scots got her head chopped off, which I saw on stage in St Andrews in the 1990s, and Rona Munro’s trilogy The James Plays about Scottish Stewart kings James I, II and III. I have my eye on David Greig’s Dunsinane play next – definitely getting a theme here for historical Scottish ones!

Quite a few of the books I read this year were bought for me as birthday or Christmas presents, usually in ebook form for my Kindle, where I read with a gigantic font and huge line spacing – more in appearance like a Ladybird book for a 5 year old child. Such present titles read included The Moon Stallion, which I saw on the television long, long ago, and Frost Hollow Hall, another Young Adult book with a historical bent and several supernatural elements to it.

I’d like to mention the books that were my favourites this year, all of which I rated as 5-star in Goodreads. In reading order they are as follows:

  • A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett
  • The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart, the first in her Merlin trilogy
  • The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner
  • The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown
  • Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, a love-letter to small town America and childhood in the 1920s
  • Mary Queen of Scots got her head chopped off by Liz Lochhead
  • Ms Marvel vol 5 “Super Famous” graphic novel
  • Saga vol 6 graphic novel
  • Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson – read in the run-up to our trip to Finland
  • Peril at End House by Agatha Christie – one of my favourite Hercule Poirot stories
  • Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott
  • Tommy v Cancer: One man’s battle against the Big C by Tommy Donbavand
  • The Moon Stallion by Brian Hayles
  • The James Plays by Rona Munro
  • The Fellowship of the Ring (Lord of the Rings part 1) by JRR Tolkien
  • A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny
  • The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge
  • Doctor Who Yearbook 1993
  • The Express Diaries by Nick Marsh
  • Frost Hollow Hall by Emma Carroll

To be fair many of these top-rated titles were rereads for me, including my absolute favourite Lord of the Rings. But I also found some new favourites to reread in the future, including the already-mentioned The Moon Stallion and Frost Hollow Hall, and Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine.

So that’s my look back at a year of reading. It’s been fun! I look forward to reading more in 2018.

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Followers of this blog may know that I completed a history PhD. But perhaps many won’t know that I did this while battling a severely disabling neurological illness. And even less known is how badly this affects my reading. Ironic since I was researching historic reading habits for my PhD.

Reading has been a problem for me since the late 1990s. I struggle with ordinary print, finding it swims constantly, and I can’t read it for long at all. Even managing to read a single page can be too much. So there’s no way I can read for a long time, or any extended book like a novel. The only print I can read now is either diving in to specific sections (very short sections!) of an academic book, or reading graphic novels (comics),

When I was retraining as a historian my postgraduate Masters degree had hefty reading lists for each week’s lecture and round-table discussion. Obviously I couldn’t read all those. So I’d try to see which books were most relevant, and narrow down what was needed. Really brutally, to specific sections, or abstracting drastically. Most of the reading list wasn’t discussed each week anyway, so I coped. And my lecturers, including my PhD supervisors, little knew how badly my reading was affected. Even now I battle to read academic books, and rarely can. Academic journal papers also pose a significant challenge. Note many of these humanities academic books are not available in e-format, especially older ones.

But though I could work around things to a large extent in my academic life I couldn’t avoid the problems the reading difficulties caused for my recreational reading. For much of the late 1990s and 2000s I stopped reading for fun completely. It was devastating, for an eager reader like me. I tried audiobooks, for a while having a very bulky tape player on loan from a national listening library, and receiving bulky tapes in the post. But this didn’t work well, because of my memory problems, which meant that I constantly need to go back to reread sections, to remember plot and/or characters. Easy in print, or ebook; much more impractical in an audiobook, especially a manual tape player.

What turned things around for me was ebooks, firstly on my iPod touch, and then in Kindle format. I adjust the font and spacing to be huge – more like a Ladybird book size, for little children. And then I find I can read, and read, and read. Still in fairly short bursts, and I still contend with major memory problems affecting my reading. But I was reading again, for fun. Woot!

That was several years ago, and my reading enjoyment continues. As an ebook reader for a long time my local library didn’t provide any ebooks, and I couldn’t read their print format books, even large print. More recently they added ebooks, but an extremely limited selection, with little that I wanted to read. Vastly less than the range of books provided in print format to the library’s users.

So I usually have to buy ebooks. Often I’ll pick up bargains, e.g. in Amazon’s special Kindle sales for 99p. Or relatives will buy me ebooks for my birthday or Christmas. Often I pay full price for an ebook, for something I really want. But it is quite an expensive habit, since I can’t borrow free books from the library.

On the plus side many out of copyright ebooks are freely available through Project Gutenberg, and can be downloaded to load onto e-reading devices like Kindles, iPads etc. I’m currently working my way through Charles Dickens, and have also read and reread all the Sherlock Holmes books. But I’m more likely to read new books, even if I must be careful how I buy them.

But I am reading! So it is more than worth it. Each year I set myself a reading challenge in Goodreads, where I record the books I’m reading. Given there can be extended periods (weeks or even months) where I’m too ill to read at all I’m modest in my challenges. But this year, based on past successes, I set myself the goal of finishing 50 books in 2017. So far the running total is 67. For example this October has been full of spooky reads. I’ve just started Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree, which I’ve never read.

I know many people are anti ebooks. That’s their choice. But my story isn’t unique. I’ve heard of other people with similar medical conditions – e.g. multiple sclerosis, ME or stroke survivors – who also struggle with print, but with ebooks can adjust the font and spacing so they can read. I think this aspect of ebooks and reading is little understood and little recognised, but for me it’s been life-changing, and remarkably positive.

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When I did my history PhD at Dundee University (“Reading habits in Scotland circa 1750-1820”) I was plugging a big gap in the research. All PhD research should make a contribution, but it’s rare for a subject to be quite so little studied before as this one. Scottish reading habits and book history more generally had been little researched since Paul Kaufman in the 1960s. Some PhDs had been completed, but usually by librarians, without their own graduate students to inspire. And so, although Scotland has a mass of useful sources (library borrowing records, evidence of book ownership etc.), its reading and book history was largely little researched when I started my PhD in 2003.

Of course the downside of having a big gap is that there’s always a chance someone else will come along and fill it. During my PhD there was a panic moment, when I learned of another PhD student, Mark Towsey at neighbouring St Andrews, looking at many of the same sources, with a very similar PhD topic. We met up, and established our respective approaches. We still had overlaps, but not enough to jeopardise getting our PhDs. And we both completed successfully.

That was some years ago, but more recently reading history has become more popular among Scottish researchers, almost fashionable to an extent. And in the last few years I’ve watched with interest new PhD students starting to work on Scottish reading habits, for example Maxine Branagh-Miscampbell looking at childhood reading in 18th century Scotland, and Jill Dye studying Innerpeffray Library and its borrowers. It’s a slightly strange feeling seeing the field come alive like this, but in a rather wonderful way. And it’s always exciting to see new researchers approach things differently, in terms of their theoretical framework and methodologies, and in terms of the core research questions that they explore.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing the results of these and other upcoming Scottish PhD projects in the next few years. It’s exciting to see these developments, if still rather strange at the same time!

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Two weeks ago I was in Paris, partly for holiday, partly to attend the annual SHARP book history conference. SHARP is the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing. Its conferences are held each year, usually alternating between North America and Europe. I’ve been to SHARP conferences four times now, since 2005, and always find it a rewarding experience. I’ve written up my 2016 experiences below, mainly to have a record for myself for the future. In a nutshell I had a great time, and was inspired as usual, but had some wheelchair accessibility issues, and other concerns about the conference venue. If you want to read on feel free, but note it is long!

This year’s conference, per the usual format, was held over three main days, with over 100 panels of usually three talks, up to eleven panels simultaneously at any given time. In addition there was a day of postgraduate talks and activities. The conference was held at the Bibliotheque nationale de France and the university site BULAC. This conference would turn out to have the biggest attendance yet of any SHARP conference so far. In addition the conference was bilingual, including live translation in place for the audience at key talks.

I could only go to the conference on one day. I have a neurological illness, similar in day to day symptoms to multiple sclerosis, and am limited in how long I can attend any academic event. I am also very weak after any event, and need to rest, preventing any chance of attending on successive days. I usually bring my wheelchair if possible, to help me last longer. Sadly wheelchair accessibility at sites varies, but usually we manage pretty well. As usual, I contacted the conference organisers before registering. This was partly to check wheelchair accessibility, but also to ask if my husband could be admitted free as my helper. I can’t wheel myself around, and having him there to help me through doors etc. and manage meals etc. is enormously helpful. Usually conference organisers are happy to do this, and that would be the case this time too. We intended to attend the Paris conference on the Wednesday, including the digital showcase, but had to wait for the final programme, released just before the event, to be sure. A drawback for me was the conference being split across two sites, with a long walk/push between them – fine for fit and healthy people, not so great for me in a wheelchair. So we were keen to stick to the one venue. Fortunately I found enough talks I wanted to go to on one day at the main BnF site. Ideally we would have been there for the opening panel at 9am, indeed earlier to allow time to register. But with the logistics of getting a wheelchair across Paris by taxi we aimed instead to get there for 9.45, when we would meet a BnF staff member to guide us in with wheelchair, negotiating the lift etc.

The conference started on the Monday, with postgraduate sessions, before starting properly on the Tuesday. I followed the tweets from conference attendees over the opening days – many more tweets than I’d ever seen for any previous SHARP conference. From the tweets it was clear that many people were struggling with heat, in unusually warm weather for Paris (up to 36C). This made me extra relieved that I was only aiming to attend on the one day, in a modest way.

Wednesday arrived. It was another extremely hot day, but luckily we had a scary but trouble free taxi ride across the city to the BnF. We met BnF staff member Isabelle who took us into the building, including via the lift. I was quite surprised at how much security there was in the BnF building, but in the circumstances it’s sensible. We registered us both with no problems – because my husband was recorded as a full attendee (albeit paying no conference attendance fee) this meant he got an identity badge too, which was good to have. At registration we ran into a St Andrews book historian we know, which was nice, then wheeled through to the auditorium foyer where the publishers stands were, and also the venue for many coffee breaks. Here we had our first hiccup with the building: an awful lot of doors to go through, which had to be opened wide. Again I was grateful my husband was with me, not coping on my own, though other conference goers rushed forward to help too, which was extremely kind of them.

We found the Brill publishers stand and managed to buy the book I wanted – a recently published St Andrews book conference proceedings, bought at SHARP at quite a discount. It was nice to see another familiar face with the Brill rep there, who we’ve seen before multiple times at SHARP and St Andrews. Then time for a quick drink, before heading off for my first panel at 11am.

Here we ran into more problems. The BnF is a very long building, and it was a very long walk to the salle Jules Verne where our panel was. I couldn’t have walked that distance, even when I’m on my feet and coping well. So thank goodness for the wheelchair. Though it was not always easy to wheel on heavily carpeted floors. Of course heavily carpeted floors are good for sound proofing, in a library environment. There were lots of “Silence!” signs around as we travelled along, past many quiet reading rooms.

The Jules Verne room itself was problematic. I had to get out of my wheelchair to get through the door. Even more troublesome was noise coming in from people speaking outside in nearby corridors, seemingly on three sides of the room. This was very distracting for audience members, and very distracting for the speakers, who often tried to raise their voices to be heard over audible conversations we could hear and follow from outside. This was not a great setting for an academic talk. Also seating in the room was poor for the audience trying to see the slides at the front. Much of the audience couldn’t see the PowerPoint pictures being shown by the speakers, with fellow audience heads in the way. Again not a great arrangement of room for what was needed.

Having said that, the talks were fascinating. This panel was about 18th century libraries, so bang on topic for me who completed a PhD on Scottish reading habits in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I particularly enjoyed Jason McElligott’s talk about book thefts in 18th century Dublin. Partly this was for a personal reason: I have Dublin ancestry, and my ancestors would have lived in the city then. I doubt they ever set foot in Marsh’s Library, though I wouldn’t put it past them handling stolen books! But I also enjoyed it because it gave a different perspective on reading and book collecting tastes at the time. I actually commented on this in the Q&A section after the talks, suggesting to Jason that he could use the detailed lists of books stolen to reassess Irish reading tastes at the time. It’s quite likely that it would give a different picture from conventionally studied records like library catalogues and bookseller adverts.

After this it was lunchtime. So first was a long wheel back to the grand auditorium foyer where lunch was served. Here was a particular delight: individual take away cardboard lunch boxes, with handles, full of sandwiches, salad or pasta, fruit and a drink. It was a great way of giving out the food tidily, but also meant attendees could carry their lunches easily to wherever they wanted to eat in the building.

The Digital Showcase of book history computing projects is usually held on the middle day of the conference, and I was keen to get it. One project on display I was interested in had no-one there to talk to about it, and the information board was all in French, which stumped us somewhat, though we tried our best to read it, my husband even resorting to a simultaneous translation app on his iPad, photographing sections of the information board, and then letting the app try to spot the words and instantly translate. Quite magic, but a bit limited. However I was relieved to get to talk to Jan from St Andrews – another familiar face – about Book History Online. I’d recently noticed some gaps in its coverage, and wanted to know more about how the resource – an online bibliography of book and library history – is compiled. I came away much wiser. I’m sure it will be a useful resource for me to use in future. Fortunately although it is subscription only I can access it through my honorary research fellowship at Dundee University.

After this we made our way to the next room. And here problems were manifold. The next panel we were going to, about shipboard publications, was in the room designed PLK1, in one of the outside towers, outside the main BnF building. Fortunately we had studied the maps to know how to get there. But even once there we couldn’t get in the door. And the building’s security guards didn’t have a clue what was going on, or why we were wanting to get in that door. Eventually they phoned someone inside the building to come and open it from inside, but it was chaotic. And once inside we had to get to the first floor, with no lift. And my wheelchair. I had told the conference organisers in advance which specific panels I wanted to go to, but I believe there was a breakdown of communication at their end, and they didn’t move this panel to a more accessible room. Fortunately I’m not wheelchair bound, though very weak at attending a long day of academic conference. Most helpfully my husband was willing to carry the wheelchair up and down stairs, while I struggled with my sticks. So I was able to get to the panel I dearly wanted to attend. But this should never have happened. Once inside the room we were joined shortly by two of the speakers, who weren’t sure if they were in the right place, and wondered if anyone else would find the room! Fortunately more people did, and there was a good audience by the time the panel started. Though there was no trustworthy looking wifi in this venue for audience members to use, including no access to the main BnF wifi network. I ended up connecting to something that looked somewhat dodgy, but would hopefully let me live tweet. That wasn’t a great situation to be in.

Thankfully the panel was really interesting, and worth the struggle up the stairs with a wheelchair! The three speakers all spoke about different aspects of shipboard writing. I was particularly agog at the story of the New Zealand troop ship magazines being saved thanks to a Dunedin librarian with much foresight requesting in the 1920s that the magazines be sent into the library, for posterity’s sake. I also found the stories of emigrant ship magazines moving, giving a sense of community to people setting out on new lives. For example it was touching that these magazines, compiled by the emigrants themselves, referred to the ships as ‘home’. All the talks were well presented, and on time, and followed up with a lovely Q&A, with good cross-panel discussion from the panellists, as well as participation from the audience.

I had originally intended to attend a third panel of the day, on archives and book history. But what with the extremely warm temperature combined with our struggle up and down two flights of stairs I decided to leave early. So we called a taxi, and were picked up at about 4pm outside the BnF.

All in all I had a rewarding day. I’m not totally sure about the suitability of the BnF as a conference venue. Not just for my problems with wheelchair accessibility, but also due to relatively poor signage, widely spread out lecture rooms, and quite a lot of noise coming through into at least one of them. That room also had problems for people trying to view PowerPoint slides on screen. And we had wifi problems in the other room too. But we were made very welcome, and the lunch was superb. And, as usual, I found attending even the one day of SHARP incredibly stimulating intellectually. Even from just the two panels attended I have lots of fresh ideas to apply to my own research and writings, and feel inspired.

I’m not sure when I will be back at SHARP’s annual conference again. Probably when it is back in Europe. Health permitting. But I look forward to it. Meanwhile I have great memories of my time in Paris, including a day at SHARP 2016.

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