Austen Project is a Dickens of a good idea

Hi everyone!
I’m Lauren, and I’m the discussion leader for the Mitchell Classics Book Group. In 2012, our reading group was one of the Reading Agency’s Dickens Champions. This year, the Reading Agency is giving reading groups across the country a chance to be part of the Austen Project, which is a fantastic opportunity to read and blog about some of the best works by Jane Austen, and I really hope that you’ll consider taking part.
Our reading group really enjoyed being a Dickens Champion, and without a doubt, it was not only fun, but a richly rewarding experience as we had the chance to read, and in many cases re-read some of our favourite books by Dickens. By reading and discussing several of Dickens’s books within a relatively short time, our group found we were able to compare and contrast his books in a way we hadn’t been able to before. This allowed not only a deeper level of discussion, but it also renewed our love of favourite heroes (Oliver, and Pip) and wish for the rightful comeuppance of the worst baddies (Uriah Heep, and Sikes).
I would encourage all reading groups that love Jane Austen’s books to sign up to the Reading Agency site to follow the project, and especially to give The Austen Blog Project a go! Even if you have never blogged or written about your favourite author or book before – don’t worry! For many folks in our reading group, it was first time they had done anything like it, and the friendly folks at the Reading Agency made it all very easy. So all you Jane Austen fans out there get cracking! Just fill in the online form and, who knows, your group could be selected – good luck!

Friday Blog July 26 – Join the Jane Austen Blog Project

Here’s an invite from Reading Groups for Everyone:

The Reading Agency is thrilled to be partnering with HarperCollins to offer 10 enthusiastic reading groups the chance to take part in The Austen Project and experience Austen as never before.

The Austen Project, pioneered by HarperCollins, pairs six bestselling contemporary authors with Jane Austen’s six complete works. Taking these cherished stories as their base, each author has written their own unique take on one of Jane Austen’s novels.

The Austen Project will launch in October 2013 with the release of Joanna Trollope’s reimagining of Sense & Sensibility, and continue with Val McDermid’s reworking of Northanger Abbey in spring 2014 and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Pride & Prejudice in autumn 2014.

Get involved

The Reading Agency is searching for 10 reading groups to join The Austen Project for the year, beginning by reading Sense & Sensibility in September 2013 and blogging about it. The 10 lucky reading groups will each receive a set of 10 books, reading guides and other materials to spark discussion.

To get an idea of what other groups, including our own Mitchell Classics, got up to with a similar project see the Dickens Champions blog

If your book group would like to take part in The Austen Blog Project, please register your interest here by 7 August and add your group to the site.

Reading Groups for Everyone

Friday Blog May 10 – what can our young readers teach us?

This week’s guest blogger is Alison, librarian at Castlemilk High School and Springburn Academy

In my capacity as a secondary school librarian I have been working with two bookgroups, predominantly first years, and I have come to the realisation that our young people have a lot to offer us in terms of how we engage with books.

The challenge with this age group is to create book groups that are dynamic and engaging, while also promoting literacy.  The format of read a book, come back, review and analyse it, was not a solution that would satisfy the requirements of “dynamic and engaging” for the young people.

I believe that some of the activities we have worked on would be completely at home in an adult book group.  They would also help to encourage participation from so called non-readers, lapsed readers or reluctant readers (dragged along by a friend usually!).  I’d like to explore a few with you.

  •  Diary of A…..WIMPY1-120x176

The Diary of A Wimpy kid series is always in great demand so an activity around this always goes down well with our pre-teens.  Together we worked on brainstorming what qualities a diary format book had.  Cue sticking post-it notes all over the table with adjectives as diverse as “crush”, “war” and “rivalry”.  We then decided to write our own diaries based on books we had read or hobbies we had.  This prompted them to think about different narrative styles and how we could adapt existing books or be creatively free.  My attempt to convince them that my Diary of a Scary Librarian was entirely autobiographical was met with giggles and protest…..

What qualities do we think make a good diary format novel?  Is this a legitimate form to use when attempting to tell a great story?  Or will it always fall short of its potential?  Think Adrian Mole, The Color Purple and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  I’d encourage all bookgroups to see if they can adapt a novel and see how it would differ in diary format.

  •  Reverse film adaptation

The perennial debate of ‘what is better; the book or the film’ features regularly in my discussions with pupils.  Unlike most of my friends, there is no overwhelming majority exclaiming that “the book is ALWAYS better”.  So I gave my young members the chance to explore the situation and pick one of their favourite films.  They then had to write their own story interpretation of it. 

How would we do if faced with the same challenge?  Maybe we should be a little less harsh when we look at the work of screenwriters faced with novels that, in all honesty, are available for our own individual interpretation?

  •  Who Am I?

An excellent ice breaker in my first book group session was the Who Am I, Post-it on your forehead, only yes/no answers allowed game (proper title would be welcome!).  As we worked round the group we introduced ourselves, offered up our foreheads to our neighbour to determine which fictional character we would be and then the real fun began.  This allowed the pupils to explore characters that they knew well, or were completely unfamiliar with.  Rather than focusing on a review of one book we discussed and recommended a selection of books.  This encouraged the pupils to borrow books they had learned about at the end of the session.

Imagine this in an adult book club “Eliza Doolittle – what book is she from?….That sounds good actually, I might go check it out”  Perfect for those looking for new avenues to explore, or reluctant readers who can become involved without the commitment of having to a read a novel before the bookgroup meeting.

Next week we are planning the Book-Bout.  Here, you fight your book’s corner and tell everyone why it is THE best book.  I can’t wait to see how the pupils convey the key aspects of what makes a book great!

Go on….fight for the books you love!

Friday Blog Feb 8 – Shadowing the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

Today’s blog comes from The Reading Agency  – flagging up a great opportunity for reading groups. Independent Foreign Fiction Prize
Here at The Reading Agency we’re working with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2013 – which celebrates an exceptional work of translated fiction, acknowledging the work of the author and the translator equally – and Booktrust on a reading group project.
We’re looking for 18 – 20 reading groups from across the UK who would like to:
-     Shadow the Prize by reading and reviewing two of the shortlisted titles
-     Attend a Readers’ Day all about translated fiction on Saturday 18 May at the Free Word Centre in London to vote for their favourite title, be part of author and translator discussions, see a translation duel and hear a talk from Prize judge and author Elif Shafak
Each participating reading group will also get the opportunity to be entered for a prize draw to go to the Prize Award ceremony. We’ll be able to provide you with free reading group sets of the shortlisted books and also a £300 contribution to each reading group’s travel expenses to the Readers’ Day so all group members can attend.
To be part of the project, reading groups need to fill out this form on our website by the 18th of February. For more information about the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Readers Project, please see our website.

Gaelic Reading Group/ Buidheann Leughaidh Ghàidhlig

An invitation to Gaelic speakers and learners.

The University of Glasgow / Oilthigh Ghlaschu – Centre for Open Studies/Ionad an Oilein Fhosgailte invites you to join the Gaelic Reading Group/ a’ toirt cuireadh dhut tighinn gu Buidheann Leughaidh Ghàidhlig.

This will be an opportunity for post-beginner learners and above, including fluent speakers, to get together to read and talk about Gaelic writing, in Gaelic, in a friendly and informal environment. To kick things off, we’ll be reading something easy but enjoyable – An Duine Dubh by Iain Mac a’ Ghobhainn.

We’ll be meeting on Tuesday 5th of February at 5.00pm in The Centre for Open Studies, St. Andrew’s Building, Eldon St. Glasgow G3 6NH.

Contact to find out more.

Friday Blog Jan 25 – poetry for book groups

It’s Burns Day – so today’s topic is poetry. Has your book group ever dabbled in poetry? There are resources out there to give you ideas. The Poetry Book Society has book group downloads of the ten poets shortlisted for the 2012 TS Eliot Poetry Prize. There are copyright cleared poems with discussion points and a bit of background on the poets. The winner of the prize was announced last week: American poet Sharon Olds for Stag’s Leap – a collection about the end of her marriage. Here’s how the BBC reported Sharon’s win. And for a bit of variety – the Daily Mail!

The Mitchell Poetry Group will be discussing Sharon’s poems at the next meeting – 7th February, 6pm on level 5. Come along if you’re free. Or check out the downloads for your own group.

And remember you can always find ideas at the Scottish Poetry Library Scottish Poetry Library Logo.

Friday Blog Sept 21- Research into Reading

As members of book groups you don’t need me to tell you that reading is good for you. A good book can both stimulate and relax you, it can transport you to another place or time, let you see things from someone else’s point of view. Reading helps your mental and physical well-being and can develop emotional intelligence.  Not to mention teach you loads of stuff and do wonders for your Scrabble scores.

If you read a lot, you just know this is true. I was interested to come across some research that backs this up – undertaken by The Reader Organisation. Through their Get Into Reading programme, they knew how their reading groups help a wide range of people to feel better about themselves and the world in which they live, and carried out research into why this is the case. I was at a seminar where they presented on one piece of research: a study into how literature can help older people living with dementia – the research shows that reading in a group can “produce a significant reduction in dementia symptom severity”

You can find the full report on their website.

Friday Blog Sept 14 – Mitchell Classics group falls on Hard Times

Time to hear again from our Dickens Champions.

Report by Lauren:

The Mitchell Classics Group really enjoyed Hard Times and generally thought it was more thought-provoking and harder-hitting than Dickens’ other novels. Yes, the humour, the pathos, the well-drawn character studies, the saintly heroines, the dastardly, conniving baddies, and yes, even the moral torment of most of the characters in some form or other are there, but these are all played out on an even darker and grimier scale.

Hard Times is based in Coketown, an imaginary industrial town in the north of England at the height of the Industrial Revolution. In this novel, Dickens attacks the rise of industry and its relentless pursuit of profit, and the de-humanisation of the people that work in the factories, the ‘Hands’.

He also criticises an educational system that did not leave room for the humanity in the humanities. Facts and statistics were to replace compassion, generosity, good ol’ common sense, and generally what are considered Christian virtues, with references to Christianity and the bible sprinkled in both straight and ironic references throughout the novel. In the very beginning of the book, we meet Thomas Gradgrind, the headmaster of the school in Coketown, instructing the teacher, Mr. M’Choakumchild:

‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life’…The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels, then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.’

Our book group found this novel to have contemporary relevance, and saw modern parallels for the issues that Dickens raised. Dickens’ attack on Victorian industrialisation depicted on a local level and its subsequent pollution – environmental and, arguably human – along with the debate on what was to be taught in schools were seen to have strong correlations to issues of the 21st century, with its debate on large-scale problems such as the global expansion of industry and its effects on global warming, and the quality and standard of our ‘modern’ educational systems.

And yes, in the end the baddies recieve their comeuppance, the ‘morally challenged’ live to regret their mistakes and the good-hearted are rewarded (mostly), but the happy ending in the lighter hues and pinks of Dickens’ other works is not to be found here, and with such heavy subject matter, we believe it gives these heavy issues their proper due.

What Anne Marie thought:

Of the novels that we have read so far, this has been the most socially engaged. In a depressed, polluted, exploitative – and imaginary – northern urban setting, Dickens sets the old wealth and the new entrepreneurs against the workers in the mill, the “Hands”. It has huge resonances for today. What could Dickens have drawn from the banking crisis, the speculation and dealing, the buying and selling of debt, the miss-selling of payment protection policies, the austerity drives, the debates on the purpose and styles of education of our own times?

The banker, the educator, the well-connected young man on the make, the ill-educated young man pushed to the wrong career, the exploited workers, the struggling circus performers, the trade unionist, they’re all there and more. And, as always with Dickens, there’s a good supply of “put-upon” wives, submissive daughters, orphaned or abandoned waifs with hearts of gold. And there is the wonderful character of Mrs Sparsit. Who but Dickens could have imagined her?

She is introduced to us in chapter 7 and in just two concise paragraphs we have her well- connected family background, her ill-fated marriage, her abrupt widowhood, her family feud and consequent but stubbornly determined self reliance. “And here she was now, in her elderly days, with the Coriolanian style of nose and the dense black eyebrows which had captivated Sparsit, making Mr Bounderby ‘s tea as he took his breakfast.” Her rather intriguing relationship with Bounderby is developed in several beautifully choreographed conversations. Each one of them a screenwriter’s dream – you would only have to lift them straight from the page – and they even have their own inbuilt actor’s notes: “Mrs Sparsit’s Coriolanian nose underwent a slight expansion of the nostrils, and her black eyebrows contracted as she took a sip of tea. “

Throughout the novel we watch as Mrs Sparsit inadvertently sets up her own fall from grace. Her scheming, self-interest brings about her downfall and how we relish seeing her soaked to the skin, crawling with caterpillars, rills running from her bonnet, her shoes squelching, as she spies on Louisa and Harthouse, plotting Louisa’s downfall and simply setting in motion the steps which lead to both her own and to Bounderby’s.

In one of Dickens’ darker novels, she is an absolute joy.

What Matthew thought:

This novel appears to be Dickens’ attempt at addressing the huge changes taking place, both industrial and social. People were moving off the land into the emerging cities, ‘Coketown’ could be Manchester, or Sheffield, and to meet the demands of a growing labour force they were housed in poor and unsanitary housing developments within the cities.

Thomas Gradgrind, extolling that everything can be explained by facts, facts, facts, has echoes of Charles Darwin’s (1809-82) theory of ‘Natural Selection’. Later in the novel with Louisa, in an unhappy marriage to Bounderby, and his son embroiled in gambling and robbery, Gradgrind is forced to recognise the value of human emotions, and starts to re-appraise his former values.

The change in Gradgrind’s values may be due to the author taking note of his readership, who would be mainly the new emerging middle class, many would be wealthy, through industry and manufacturing, but were embracing the morality and temperance associated with Christian values of the Victorian era. With the expansion of the British Empire, countries such as Africa would have its missionaries such as David Livingstone (1813-73) carrying the Christian message.

In spite of its title, Hard Times is not a hard-hitting, or political novel. Unusual for Dickens, he uses a female character, Sissy Jupe, the circus artiste, to convey a well-balanced and sensible attitude to life; compared to her Louisa is the dutiful and selfless daughter making little imprint.

Some of the characters are a reshuffle of previous types:

  1. Mr. Bounderby – could be Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist
  2. Tom Gradgrind – could be Monks from Oliver Twist
  3. Stephen Blackpool, a weaver, who knows his place in society therefore poses no threat to his employers – could be Joe the Blacksmith from Great Expectations

Dickens is observing the social and industrial changes taking place in mid-Victorian Britain but leaves the reader to form their own political opinions on the situation.

More Dickens’ reviews later in the year. Book reviews from other groups welcome.

Friday Blog Sept 7 – National Poetry Day coming soon

Less than a month until National Poetry Day – Thursday 4th October. This year’s theme is STARS and you’ll be able to pick up free poetry postcards in all Glasgow libraries. The Mitchell poetry group will be meeting that day, 6-7pm (Literature Centre, level 5) Why not come along and bring your favourite poems on the theme of Stars? Stars in the sky, film stars? The choice is yours.

Of course a single day isn’t enough for Glasgow to celebrate all things poetry. Glas-goes Poetic runs from 28th September until 10th October. Here’s how STV reported on it.

Friday Blog Aug 17 – Ask Zadie Smith a question

From Juliana at The Reading Agency

Would you like to ask international bestselling author of White Teeth, and passionate advocate of libraries, Zadie Smith a question? If your question is selected it will feature in an exclusive blog post on Reading Groups for Everyone.

How to ask Zadie Smith a question 

If you’ve got a question you’d like to put to Zadie – about her work, about her life as a writer, her passion for libraries, what she’s going to be writing next or what she’s reading – this is how you can do it:

•             Add your question here, on the Zadie Smith author focus page on Reading Groups for Everyone.

•             If you’re on Twitter tweet your question using the hashtag #askZadieSmith

•             Or simply email your question to

Make sure you’ve posted your question by Friday 31 August  and we will select the five best to put to Zadie Smith.