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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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I’m a keen reader of books, and have been since a young age. So it made a lot of sense that for my history PhD I studied reading habits in Scotland in the past. But it was often a case of searching for a needle in a haystack, with reading habits largely invisible and typically unrecorded. So when I found any record of what someone had read, or what reading meant to them, it was important to make the most of it, both for that single reader, and what it told us more widely.

So in that spirit, here’s a post recapping on my own reading over the last year. Oh if only I had something like this for more of my historic readers! I have in the past blogged about books I’ve finished each month, at my LiveJournal blog, but will probably discontinue that now, in favour of an end-of-year update. So this may be the first of more to come in future.

I record my reading progress in Goodreads, and so far in 2013 I’ve completed 72 books. Most of these were read on my Kindle, which I can manage much more easily now than in print, due to the brain damage and significant reading problems it causes.

Generally I read last thing at night, before sleep, sometimes for up to an hour, but more usually for half an hour. So it can take me quite some time to finish a book. I also like to have multiple books on the go. Typically I will be concentrating on one novel, but also have various collections of short stories on the go, and non-fiction works. Most are on my Kindle, so I can easily flit between them as the mood takes me, and carry them around, for example to coffee shops, easily. I’m long-term ill, with a very nasty neurological disease, which can mean that often for days or even weeks I’m too weak to read at all, even for a short time. So my reading lapses at times, but then when I’m stronger again I pick it up again.

In terms of genres my reading is quite varied. I like fantasy a lot, and horror, and mysteries. I’m less keen on hard science fiction, or too realistic crime. I’m also not generally a fan of literary fiction. Oh and I like historical novels a bit, and like steampunk a lot, and also graphic novels, which I find generally to be really easy to read, and rewarding.

I’m a member of an online book club. The book club members take turns choosing the book to be read each month. We have quite similar tastes in many ways, but throwing open the choice like this throws up some surprises for us as well.

In Goodreads I rate books finished on a 1-5 scale. 5 means it is the very best of all; 4 I enjoyed it a lot; 3 I enjoyed it but with reservations; 2 significant problems stopped me enjoying it; and 1, well I can’t go any lower than that.

I’m pleased to say that only 2 books this year rated 1: Alan Moore’s Nemo: Heart of Ice graphic novel, which was barely coherent for me, and Eoin Colfer’s First Doctor e-short for the anniversary Doctor Who short stories by children’s authors – bad for me, because the Doctor’s characterisation was so off. Another 4 books – including 2 more of the e-shorts – rated 2/5. And 16 were scored 3/5, moving into the enjoyable territory. And 32 at 4/5, i.e. very enjoyable.

18 books were rated the very best of all. These included Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which I hadn’t read before, but was finally able to, because it was available for the Kindle. A much older book that I rated just as highly was Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop, a mystery set in Oxford, and a rollicking good read. A third memorable book was The History of the Beano: The Story So Far. It’s a history of the long-running children’s comic, and is full of old strips, as well as articles and other information about Beano history. I borrowed this book from the local university library, but was able to pick up a bargain copy for £5 at the Edinburgh Book Festival (RRP £25), so have my own copy to keep.

Another book that lingered long in the mind was Whitstable by Stephen Volk. This is a fictionalised tale of Peter Cushing encountering a real-life horror, and was wonderfully written, very moving, and quite powerful stuff. Thoroughly recommended. Likewise I hugely enjoyed Keith Miller’s 2-volume collection The Official Doctor Who Fan Club, which tells the story of this 1970s fanclub and its accompanying fanzines, including lots of facsimile reprints of the latter.

It’s been a good year for reading for me, and hopefully 2014 will be likewise. Again I expect to read mainly on my Kindle, but I’d also like to make an inroad into my academic books backlog. And if my paper is accepted for the SHARP conference in Antwerp I will also have some preparatory reading to do for that.

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I’ve just been lucky to take part in a Q&A on Facebook with Neil Gaiman for Amazon Kindle UK. He’s one of my favourite writers. I’ve seen him a couple of times talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival, and will be seeing him talk this weekend too.

Anyway partly because the talk is hosted by Amazon Kindle UK and partly because of my own academic research interests I was curious about his views on ebooks versus print books. Specifically I asked:

Do you read ebooks Neil, and how do you feel about the relative merits of digital books and print books? (I’m a fan of both)

Lots of people were asking questions, and I was lucky that he picked mine as one to answer:

Vivienne Dunstan, I think ebooks are easier to use and transport than any library of books, and have the ability to be obtained immediately, but I think that an individual book is a nicer thing than a single ebook. I like holding books, when I can. So yes, I have ebooks — I had a prototype Kindle before they were ever released — and love people reading in whatever way they wish.

That echoes my views to a large extent. Although I love ebooks, not least because they are easier for me to read because of disability reasons, I still buy and cherish print books. I particularly like signed copies by my favourite authors, and big coffee table highly illustrated books.

So essentially I’m a fan of both formats, and expect to be for a long time. It’s nice to know that Neil is too.

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I have a new blog post on the SHARP (Society for the History of Authorship Reading & Publishing) website arguing for greater engagement by book historians, and SHARP members in particular, with the digital publishing revolution. See here.

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