Coffee and Corelli

18th September 1998 at 01:00
Alison Fryer's husband once suggested that she should stop sneaking extra kilos into his suitcase and go on holiday in the school library van.

For two-and-a-half weeks in Portugal this summer, she took two of Trollope's Barchester novels ("I've only got two left now"); two meaty biographies, including one of Trollope ("C P Snow, but I wish I'd taken Victoria Glendinning"), Esther Freud's Hideous Kinky ("good to read in the heat, it's set in Morocco. And a couple of other things. I hated the Yes, Minister diaries, but you always take a book you don't like").

Alison is an example of that increasingly rare specimen - the passionate,eclectic reader. She will continue to lug doorstoppers around Europe whether there is a National Year of Reading or not and whether bookshops have espresso machines and sofas or not. Passionate readers have a key role to play over the next year in showing less fluent readers of all ages why they should bother.

Everyone in teaching has been a passionate reader at some point, but the stack of school-related material to be absorbed means that keeping the passion alive requires dedication. Reading is, for many, a pleasure tinged with guilt about not reading enough, or reading the wrong thing, or falling asleep after a few pages. For teachers, there is the added burden of having to be seen to be the right kind of reader.

Last time we were urged to read as a nation, during the Second World War, guilt didn't come into it. The printed word was presented as a handy distraction from air raids that was easy on the ration book. Today, we're not interested in the warm glow of Digging-for-Victory virtue, and pleasure-seekers have lots of other options.

Alison, who teaches six and seven-year-olds at Innellan House, Pinner, saves heavy-duty reading for the holidays. "I read Our Mutual Friend last Easter, l00 pages a day as it was meant to be read. But Dickens and Trollope are emotionally demanding. You can't put one down and start another."

Helen Fox and Judy Emerick are teachers who belong to a reading group in York. The gentle pressure to finish a book in time for group discussions encourages them to keep up with personal reading in term time. They are not deterred by one potential drawback to reading groups - that making public an essentially private pleasure might diminish it.

Helen, who teaches at Huntington primary school, says, "It's sad that many teachers don't read novels. I have to make time for them as a contrast to the sterility of curriculum documents. The reading group is probably the most stimulating thing I do in term time. The discipline of other people relying on me to read the book is good for me."

Judy's term-time reading is "purely for relaxation and escape. In the holidays I make a point of staying in bed in the morning to read, or it would never happen."

Jenny Chapman, who teaches Years 4 and 5 at Morden Mount primary school in south-east London, is about to return to school after maternity leave. She also takes to her bed to secure reading time. "I feel bereft if I don't. It has to be something that's nothing to do with school.

"Teachers have an unprecedented amount of material to read about the teaching of reading, and the emphasis is on giving children higher order skills - opening their eyes to depth, texture and characterisation. How can we do that if we're not reading widely?" She was introduced to reading groups during an exchange year in New York ("there, it was a trendy thing to do - you could imagine the cast of Friends doing it") and joined one in London this year.

"The first serious book I read after I had Elsie was Hidden Lives by Margaret Forster and I was desperate to talk to someone about it. Now I want to keep up with the sort of books that are reviewed in the Sunday papers so that I can talk about something other than school politics and nappies."

The London and York groups fit the profile of reading groups nationally - mostly female thirtysomethings, concentrating on contemporary fiction with the occasional classic. "The only non-fiction we've tried is Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and we didn't have a big turnout," says Helen.

Part of the attraction of reading groups is their informal, friends-of-friends organisation. The internal politics can take up as much time as talking about the books. Should you have food? Should you have wine? Should you only choose books everyone likes the sound of? (Yes, definitely and definitely not in both the groups I have belonged to.) Publishers have realised that the gatherings over a bottle of wine in living rooms - or a capuccino in the trendy new breed of bookshop - are big business. That the same books reappear on groups' lists - Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Berni res, Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx - is down to clever marketing as much as word-of-mouth enthusiasm. The Orange Reading Groups pack produced by the Book Trust last year generated 2,000 enquiries. The Orange pack is no longer available, but Random House, which publishes Captain Corelli and Birdsong in paperback, produces Vintage Reading Guides for a range of titles (these have a mild undergraduate-seminar flavour) and is considering the book-tape-and-notes packages popular in the United States.

Helen Fox reports that the York group loved Birdsong and Captain Corelli and she has just been "pleasantly surprised" by Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain. "It's a real joy to be introduced to something new and unexpected rather than playing safe." Judy, a roving English, drama and dance teacher in various primary and secondary schools, is well into the group's next choice, Rancid Aluminium by James Hawes. "I'm keen for us to be more adventurous. I like thrillers and whodunits. Books about miserable women leave me cold."

A Cambridge group read Bridget Jones and got into costume to read The Importance of Being Earnest for an Oscar Wilde evening. In Horsham, West Sussex, they dressed up and passed round the halvah to read The Arabian Nights. One north London group that has met for more than 20 years is said to discreetly screen new members. (How? Do you find Captain Corelli slipped into your trolley at the supermarket?) Alison Fryer wouldn't rule out a reading group, but she has read Captain Corelli already. ("Loved it, but he screws up in the last chapter".) She gave it to her husband for Christmas and persuaded him to open it on the plane home from Portugal. ("The two people in front of us were reading it already. What I really wanted to do was read bits of it aloud, but I didn't.") Vintage Reading Guides can be ordered from bookshops, or on 01206 255678

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