14th March 2003 at 00:00
Secret reading lives are relished in bed, on the train (keeping an eye out for judgmental friends and colleagues) or anywhere else where we can steal 20 minutes to read something blissfully devoid of duty or self-improvement.

The Women's Library has collected the true confessions of under-the-covers page-turners for Read This, an online project attached to the current Grow Up! exhibition on the history of advice to teenage girls.

Writer in residence Kate Pullinger has asked contributors to the site (male and female) what adults gave them to read in their teenage years - and what they really read. The response has far eclipsed that of the library's first online project, Dirty Linen (launched last year, on feelings evoked by the word "clean") with 200-plus mini-essays by (mostly) women and girls of four generations.

Certain books slip on to the favourites' shelf and stay there - Dodie Smith's breathlessly romantic I Capture the Castle, shortly to be released on film and the steamy Peyton Place by Grace Metalious, for instance. Both were hits with Susan Green, who was at secondary school in the early 1970s and read I Capture the Castle above the desk and Peyton Place below ("I never found the dirty bits. I was probably too innocent.") Jan Roy, a few years older, was more intrepid: "I read out the dirty bits in Lady Chatterley's Lover to my friend on a trip to France at 12." Briony Martin wasn't allowed to read comics and was forbidden to read Rebecca at 13. She read it anyway, intrigued by "the glamour and the sexual undercurrents".

No comics for Nora Collins either. She had a rural and religious upbringing, was given a new Bible regularly and read her father's Farmer and Stockbreeder magazine "when there was nothing else". Such entries suggest a novel in themselves in the glimpses they offer of the reader's life.

Besides the classic, the risque blockbuster and the kitchen-sink novel, the mainstay of young women since the 1940s has been the magazine. Doris Widdows, now 74, started her first job in an office in Holborn at 14, lost herself in the serial in Woman during her tea break and remembers her delight when she realised it came out every week.

No reading matter is too ephemeral or trivial for Read This, says Kate Pullinger. "As well as what people read as they were moving into adulthood, we're interested in people who didn't read, or who thought they weren't reading because they were reading magazines."

And in keeping with the section of the Grow Up! exhibition devoted to the advice magazines have delivered to girls since the 19th century, Read This delves into the cult of the problem page. Mel Terras collected problem pages to read at guide camp in the 1970s. Later, Sarah Jenkins, now 25, was grateful that her mother, an English teacher, encouraged reading not only of "classics and frothy romances" but of Just Seventeen, 19 and More!. "The maze of dating, boys, first snogs never presented much fear because it was couched in the carefree attitude of girls' magazines."

The book most readers have in common since its publication in 1976 is Judy Blume's 1976 teenage novel Forever, notorious at the time for introducing a boy's penis by its first name (Ralph). The most heartening contributor is a recent one, 17-year-old Francine Hudson (currently reading Naomi Klein's No Logo, who says: "I read books now for the passion of their authors and their views of the world." for details of Read This and the Grow Up! exhibition, which continues to the end of May

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